7th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B
Text: Isaiah 43:18-19, 20-22, 24-25; 2 Corinthians 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12.
Which is easier, indeed? As medical science progresses, we are finding that it is indeed often easier to heal the body than the mind, or the soul. We now usually think of the body as a complex machine, in which damage, malfunction, and infection cause illness and disability in ways that are understandable in purely physical terms. In Jesus’ time, though, this was not the case. As Anne Taylor pointed out in her reflection1 a couple of weeks ago, the societal view of illness and disability was that it was a punishment for sin, even though the story of Job gives a counterexample, in which Job was afflicted in order to demonstrate his faithfulness to God. The Old Testament passage which is often cited is Psalm 38, which cries to the Lord: “… no soundness in my flesh now you are angry, no health in my bones, because of my sin,”2 and continues in that vein.
This is a very hard question. Even today, there are many who view sickness as a consequence of sin.3 In 2002, Monsignor Paul Cordes, the president of the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum” for charitable works, raised eyebrows when he said that “Jesus heals sickness and banishes sin. He therefore teaches us that there is a link between sin and illness. … The history of salvation shows us that illness is a consequence of sin.”4,5 Father Georges Cottier, Pope John Paul II’s chief theologian, was quick to respond that it was “unacceptable to use passages from the Gospel in which Jesus ‘frees people from sin’ to suggest” that “the sick were guilty.”6 Some sins may cause damage to the body or mind, but not all do, and it’s wrong to take that as the retribution of a God who seeks to beat us into submission.
It seems to me that the link between sin and illness is not causal, but allegorical. Jesus heals the body and the soul, not in one act, but in two. First, he forgives sins; when the authorities see this as blasphemy, a claim by a person who isn’t even a priest of God’s own authority, he shows that his authority extends so far by doing something which, in that society, was even more improbable: healing the man’s paralysis. There were ways for sin to be expiated through the priests, but no priest could cure paralytics; thus, Jesus showed himself to be greater than the priests. If the priests could, through the prescribed rituals, take away sins, then either the paralytic’s illness wasn’t due to sin, or his sin wasn’t being forgiven. I suspect that the priests, knowing that his paralysis wouldn’t be cured, found reasons not to include him in their ritual expiations, because the people who believed that sin was a punishment would conclude that the priests had no real authority. By making outcasts of such people, the priests denied them of even what comfort the community could provide, which I think lies at the root of Jesus’ condemnation of the religious authorities. Are there people we exclude from our own communities, denying them compassion and love because they threaten our self-image?
God calls us all to be healers as Jesus was through “his Spirit in our hearts”7. In John’s Gospel, we hear Jesus say, “‘As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.’ … ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.’”8 He demonstrates through his life how to carry this authority, refusing to condemn even the guilty.9 As Paul puts it, “In [Jesus] it is always ‘Yes.’”10 He retained no one’s sin, even those who crucified him.11 When we follow his example and overcome our own woundedness to forgive, we inspire everyone, for if we can love enough to forgive, how much more does God? The Israelites knew that their atonement was not sufficient, and that forgiveness came as a generous gift: God tells them that “I … blot out transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”12 Through such signs, we see God’s boundlessly forgiving love.
I’ll finish with a few open-ended questions. How is paralysis an apt metaphor for having unforgiven sins? How am I like the paralytic man, who trusted Jesus’ promise and stood up? How am I like the crowds who wouldn’t make way for someone so clearly in need of Jesus’ help? How am I like his friends, who found a way when there seemed to be no way? How am I like the scribes, who refused to see gifts because the wrappings were not what they expected? How am I like Jesus, who gives a human glimpse of God’s awesome love? And, as we consider our Collaborative Leadership Model, how is our Parish like all of these?
Peace be with you.
1: To be published online soon, I hope!
2: Psalm 38, v. 3.
3: This shows up in contemporary Jewish thought too: the Semitic scholar Edward Lipinski writes that “God’s forgiveness of sins is identical with the curing of the man and the regeneration of his strength.” http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsou
7: 2 Corinthians 1:22
8: John 20:21-23
9: E.g., John 8:1-11
10: 2 Corinthians 1:19
11: Luke 23:34
12: Isaiah 43:25