Saturday, February 18, 2012

People Need Not Be Prisoners of Their Paralyzing Past

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Mark 2:1-12, February 19, 2012

WHEN A PERSON is paralyzed, he is practically no longer the master of himself. Dependent on others, he is not in control of what he thinks should happen to him. He is not free to chart his future. He can even be brought to places where he would not dare to go. He looks at the world through the eyes of others. At the same time, he no longer moves with the community. In fact, he is often left behind. The community to which he actively belongs in the past tends to alter its attitude. And no matter how much he tries to think that nothing has changed in him except his physical condition, the members of the community will likely imprison him to his condition, sometimes to the effect that they will tend to think there is almost nothing more to him than a paralyzed body.

At the heart of today’s Gospel (Mark 2:1-12) is a miracle story: it is a narrative about Jesus curing a paralytic. This, of course, represents a continuation of the theme which Mark stressed at the beginning of his gospel: the power of Jesus’ words. Unlike those of the teachers of the Law, his words had authority and power over sickness and diseases, and over the powers of evil. That the man was paralyzed demonstrates the extent to which Satan holds sway, and Jesus came precisely to free men from these powers. But at the same time, the story adds a new dimension to the theme: Jesus had power over sin. In bringing this out, Mark is trying to stress that Jesus is more than a miracle worker. The truth is, he comes from God. And to crystallize this theme, he inserted into the miracle story (vv 3-5,11-12) the conflict dialogue (vv 6-10) on the origin of the forgiveness of sins. On the basis of various scriptural texts (Exod 34:6-7; Isa 43:25, 44:2; Ps 103:3), the teachers of the Law argued that forgiveness is a divine prerogative, which God will exercise in the life to come. In having Jesus exercising this divine prerogative, Mark wishes to say that in Jesus God’s presence, power and authority reside—a proclamation which he later on puts on the lips of a Gentile soldier, who saw how Jesus died on the cross (Mark 15:39).

From this text alone, it is difficult to infer the relationship between the two themes: the healing of the paralytic and the forgiveness of sins. Of course, we are familiar with the findings of psychology which shows that our guilt could sometimes paralyze us, and one may be tempted to conclude that if the paralytic was healed, it was because Jesus forgave his sins. After all, this was how Jesus’ contemporaries thought of physical illness: it had sin for its cause (cf Luke 13:1-5; John 9:2-3). But this is not consistent with what appears in other traditions where Jesus never ascribed physical illness to human sinfulness (John 9:3). The most that can be said is that in touching his condition, Jesus saw that the man needed more than just physical healing. To be able to go back to a really normal life, he needed not just the restoration of his physical defect, but also his reconciliation and fellowship with God. But of course, because the teachers of the Law believed that the man could not be cured unless his sins are forgiven, Jesus did cure him to illustrate that he had the power over sin. Mark’s purpose would be polemical, then. But the point is simply this: so the man could be truly whole again, Jesus not only made him walk, but also forgave his sins.

By exercising his power over sin, Jesus freed the man from the prison of his past. Sins against God and neighbor—like greed, lust, and pride--affect our whole person; they change the way we perceive ourselves, our outlook, our attitude to others, and even our relationship with God. There are people who may be physically well, but because of wrong human relationships, they are often caught paralyzed. They are virtual prisoners of their own past. They are bitter about themselves, and about others, and suffer in isolation. They cannot move forward, or cope up with situations which under normal circumstances one can easily put under control. By uttering his powerful word of forgiveness, Jesus offered the paralytic a fresh start. His turbulent soul was healed, his conscience unburdened. And having received forgiveness, he acquired a new power which freed him from the encumbrances of his life, and which made his life whole again. One can be sure that when the man walked away, bringing up his pallet, he was a completely new person, and extremely happy at what had happened to him (cf Isa 43:18-19, 1st Reading). And, of course, this shows that to lead a truly human life, it is important not only that we are physically healthy, but also that we experience God’s forgiveness, and fellowship with him.

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