Seventh Sunday, Year (B)
(Isaiah 43:18f., 21f., 24-26; 2nd. Corinthians 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12)
So many public figures celebrated by the young seek happiness and end up (quite literally) in a surfeit of pleasures under a mantle of degradation; and yet, surely their very obvious searching for happiness is what, to a large extent, makes them so attractive to young people. Now we Catholics and Christians ourselves are committed searchers for happiness, although we would, of course, add the word ‘true’: we search for, and we would also claim to possess, in a certain manner and to a certain degree, ‘true happiness’. Why then is there so little community of spirit, so little empathy, between our Christian aspirations and the longings of great swathes of modern youth? Can we not offer anything to challenge the wretched body-and-soul-destroying pleasures to which they so eagerly resort despite all warnings? Is their experience of life so desperately empty and meaningless that our current version of Christian hope seems totally irrelevant to their need? What can we offer that they can appreciate? We do offer faith, hope, reconciliation, peace of soul -- and we can offer much more as I am sure you know -- but what can we offer that might satisfy their longing for a happiness they can, easily and yet seriously, experience and share?
Now people are happy because they have some aspiration, some work, some person, they delight in, to whom, to which, they can most completely give and devote themselves with fulfilment. Consequently, the best offer we can make for all modern seekers of happiness is surely to help them find joy and delight in, admiration of and love for, the Person of Jesus our Saviour as shown to us in the Gospels. We cannot offer them a life of approved obedience, much admired self-discipline, not even our personal assurances and protestations of private fulfilment in the life of faith; we must rather offer something ‘objective’, something there for all to see and appreciate in the Gospels, we must be able to help them to an understanding and appreciation of the wonderful life’s work and Personal beauty of Jesus; for the truly perfect human beauty, goodness, wisdom, love and courage of Jesus is, as it were, the richest vein of purest gold for human joy (our version of happiness) and fulfilment, which we must learn to mine – as Catholics indeed but also for ourselves -- if we are to recommend Christian faith and Catholic commitment to happiness seekers and addicts. Happiness, of itself, is a sort of half-way-house, it is always fragile and dependent, it needs to develop, and has two options: one possibility is that offered by the world’s band-wagon of pleasures, which are feverish in every respect; the other is Christian joy, both deep and consuming, not simply enduring towards but indeed positively blossoming into eternity.
In order to respond to youthful yearnings and blindness we need to deliberately promote happiness in our own Christian quality of life, to develop our own joy in, love for, and peace with Jesus, so that He might be recognized as our mysterious joy and fulfilment. To this end we should try to appreciate and delight much more in the Lord, not with clap, happy, artificial abandon, but with a deeply serious and yet lovingly sincere search for and appreciation of the beauty and goodness of our God and Saviour. Let us take today’s readings for a starting point.
You heard in the Gospel of a certain paralytic who was blessed with four good friends who brought him, on his stretcher, to Jesus when He was at Peter‘s house in Capernaum, and:
Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd, they opened up the roof above Him. After they had broken through, they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying.
They might have been simply seeking for a miraculous cure for their friend; but Jesus’ words on seeing them lower the man down in front of Him would seem to indicate that He understood something more than a mere cure was needed:
When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, "Child, your sins are forgiven you."
Now, devout Jews of those times regarded sickness as a punishment for sin. From early traditions contained in the book of Exodus we read:
So you shall serve the LORD your God, and He will bless your bread and your water. And I will take sickness away from the midst of you. (23:25)
The Torah repeats the same teaching in the book of Deuteronomy (7:12, 15):
It shall come to pass, because you listen to these judgments, and keep and do them, that the LORD your God will keep with you the covenant and the mercy which He swore to your fathers. And the LORD will take away from you all sickness, and will afflict you with none of the terrible diseases of Egypt which you have known, but will lay them on all those who hate you.
The great prophets of Israel taught likewise; as we find, for example, in Isaiah:
Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins. (40:2)
Moreover, Psalms were sung in the daily Temple liturgy and we there we hear:
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits: Who forgives all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases. (Ps 103:2-3)
And so, throughout the Old Testament such teaching was to be found, and Jesus Himself gave expression to it on one occasion mentioned in St. John’s Gospel:
Afterward Jesus found (the man He had healed) in the temple, and said to him, "See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you." (John 5:14)
It was an attitude firmly fixed in the mind and heart of St. Paul also, who wrote to His converts in Corinth concerning their celebration of the Eucharist:
He who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. (1 Cor. 11:29-30)
Therefore, in today’s Gospel reading, noting the spiritual anxiety of the sick man and of his friends, and appreciating their faith, Jesus said to the paralytic:
Child, your sins are forgiven you.
On hearing those words the Scribes -- who were present to keep an eye on Jesus for the Jerusalem authorities -- said in their hearts:
Why does this Man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?
Notice that they are not speaking these words for all to hear, they are just thinking them in their minds, or, at the most, perhaps whispering them one to another. Now Jesus’ words, ‘Child, your sins are forgiven’ were in perfect conformity with Jewish piety which, for reverence’ sake, made use of the passive turn of phrase even though the actual meaning was:
God has forgiven your sins.
The Scribes, however, were maliciously interpreting His words ‘Your sins are forgiven you’ in such a way that they might be turned against Him:
He is blaspheming; who but God alone can forgive sins?
Jesus had actually said nothing about Himself forgiving the man’s sins; but since the Jewish authorities considered Him to be extremely dangerous for both religious and political reasons, accordingly, there were many like these Scribes, who -- thinking Jesus to be of but little personal account and hoping to win approval for themselves -- would not scruple to maliciously twist His words so that, thereby, a much-sought-after charge might be brought against Him: “This fellow is pretending to forgive sins! He is blaspheming!”
It is now, however, that Jesus begins to turn their malice against them, showing that the charge they have conjured up against Him -- a claim to divine authority and power -- far from being a blasphemous pretence on His part, contained something of a mysterious truth about Him. Having no regard for Jesus, indeed, wanting to get rid of Him, they are about to be totally confounded when their chosen charge against Him is shown to reflect something divinely true about Him. They may well, at that moment, have been congratulating themselves that they would soon be able to take an acceptable report back to Jerusalem, when Jesus looking at them said:
Why are you thinking such things in your hearts?
They began to feel embarrassed, uncomfortable; after all, how did this fellow know what they were thinking, planning, in their hearts? Jesus went on:
Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise, pick up your mat and walk'?
Here we must bear in mind the opinions of the Rabbis based on the Scriptures’ teaching about sin and sickness, for the Rabbis taught that no one would be cured from sickness without first having their sins forgiven (cf. Edersheim 348). Therefore choosing either one alternative or the other ultimately required both to take place. Jesus words “Your sins are forgiven” could only be shown, proved, to be true if He were then to go on to say to the paralytic “Get up, pick up your mat and walk”. On the other hand, if He had first said “Get up, pick up your mat and walk” His words, according to Jewish teaching, could bring about no God-given cure without the man’s sins having been forgiven beforehand. It was absolutely necessary to say the words and do the deed, there was no ‘easier’ way; according to the Scribes’ own teaching, both forgiveness and healing were required.
Having shown the extent of His knowledge of their Law, Jesus now proceeded to confound and embarrass the Scribes’ in their secret thoughts by exercising a healing power which He did not hesitate to declare to be His own by saying:
I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.
Did such words perchance hint that He also had Personal authority to pronounce those words of forgiveness of which they had maliciously accused Him? For, after all, forgiveness had to precede healing; surely, they both went together? Such thoughts would be deeply disturbing but also, perhaps, secretly providential for the Scribes.
The people, however, unaware of that secret struggle between malice and mercy, between dogmatic authoritarianism and divine Wisdom, were truly delighted with the man’s healing and full of praise for God’s goodness, saying:
We have never seen anything like this!
The Scribes had no such immediate feelings of joy in their hearts or praise on their lips, for Jesus’ apparent ability to read their minds and hearts was filling their thoughts. They departed to make their report to the religious authorities but, despite whatever words of success they might have used in their report, they went away with unsettling thoughts on their minds, and apprehension in their hearts: had that fellow really been able to read their hearts, had He truly known their thoughts? Even more, did He perhaps -- perish the thought – somehow have power and authority to forgive sins and heal God’s punishment? Who was He?
Nevertheless, unknown to themselves, those returning Scribes were -- together with the rejoicing people, albeit in a far different manner – being patiently prodded and invited by God to look more carefully and more humbly at the mystery of the disturbing One Who referred to Himself as ‘the Son of Man’.
Let us also, coming to the end of our consideration of this episode in the life of Jesus, and having so much admired Jesus and delighted in His wisdom, recall, and better appreciate, those words of the St. Paul:
We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28)
For, they would tell us -- who are being drawn by the Father to Jesus and called to love, delight in, and glorify His Name -- that over the course of our years as His disciples so many, many, events, occasions, and occurrences must have worked most wonderfully together for our good. And yet, our weaknesses and failings as Christian witnesses -- having far too often not even noticed such occasions let alone delighted in them -- has meant that we have consequently been unable to convincingly declare the beauty and goodness of Jesus before our contemporaries searching so desperately for happiness in their lives; perhaps, at the best, we used merely human words to falteringly hint at what the joy of our features and the serenity of our bearing -- secret and unsuspected gifts of the Spirit of Jesus -- might otherwise have manifested beyond all doubt and questioning.
Jesus had much work to do, and so the Gospel continues:
Once again He went out along the sea. All the crowds came to Him and He taught them.
May He continue indulgently, we pray, to teach us too by His Most Holy Spirit, in and through Mother Church: leading, guiding, and enabling us, to hear and appreciate, to rejoice at and delight in, His unfailing witness to the love, truth, goodness and beauty of His and our heavenly Father.