And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2 And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; and he was preaching the word to them. 3 And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. 4 And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay. 5 And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question thus in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.” 12 And he rose, and immediately took up the pallet and went out before them all; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” (Revised Standard Version)
See also: Matthew 9:2-8, Luke 5:18-26
The following reflections are based on the Gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday after Transfiguration; Eve of the Fast of the Assumption of the Holy Mother of God:
Through the story of Jesus forgiving/healing the paralytic lowered through the roof, we are given an understanding of God’s plan of rescuing the world. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the Healer who forgives and brings us back to health, makes our entire nature whole. St. Cyril of Alexandria writes,
When the Savior says to [the paralytic], ‘Man, your sins are forgiven you,’ he addresses this to humankind in general.
The dual demonstration of Jesus’ power to forgive and heal points to the final restoration of all things, when the entire world, all of creation, which includes our body-soul unity afflicted with the disease of sin, will be restored, brought into alignment and set right, in union with the Creator (see Revelation 21:4). The command to “Rise, take up your pallet and go home,” is an invitation to all of us to return to our true home, the Garden of Eden, where we enjoy paradise, the freedom of God’s peace, no longer bound by our sickly condition caused by sin.
To Forgive is to Heal, To Heal is to Forgive
Today’s Gospel tells the story of four friends carrying a paralytic to receive healing from Jesus. Hungry for a miracle, they went to extremes to get him right at his feet. Waiting for Jesus to be done speaking was not an option. When the crowds were too large to keep them from getting close, they went up to the roof of the house, which, by the way, was not their property, and tore a hole through it! They lowered their paralyzed friend down, interrupting Jesus and inconveniencing everyone else as they all had to turn their attention to this unusual scene. Rather than scold the men for this interruption, Jesus made sure to turn it into an opportunity for everyone to witness the effort of these four friends, something to be talked about even today.
How do we understand sin?
Interestingly, Jesus didn’t say to the paralytic, “Be healed,” or “Rise and walk,” not immediately anyway. He said something unexpected to the crippled man which sparked controversy: “My son, your sins are forgiven.” That should make us pause and wonder. Is that what we would expect to hear if we wanted and prayed for physical healing? We might even say “You forgive my sins? I don’t remember confessing anything!” So how do we make sense of this? Perhaps we need to revisit our understanding of sin and forgiveness.
Sin is popularly understood as breaking God’s rules. When someone asks, “Is it a sin to do x, y, or z?” they’re essentially asking, “Is it against God’s rules to do x, y, or z?” This is a legal way of understanding sin, in the context of guilt and punishment, which is not necessarily the Armenian Church’s (or the early Church in general) way of understanding it. Simply put, sin is broken communion with God and with one another. Sin is everything and anything in the world that distracts or pulls us in a direction away from God, from faith, from undivided devotion to him. Sin of course includes evil acts such as murder, greediness, and sexual immorality, but it doesn’t only include “evil” things or behavior.
How often do we attach ourselves to seemingly innocent activities and give disproportionate attention which probably should be given to things that will draw us closer to God? Do I really need to binge-watch another series of this show, or should I call a friend in need? Do I really need another pair of shoes, or should I donate this money to a family in need from my parish? Am I giving too much attention to my career at the expense of being present for my family at home? Am I giving more time to my cell phone than prayer? There is nothing necessarily evil about Netfllix, shopping, dedication to a career, or cell phones, but where and how do we place our priorities? What has become an idol in my life, in our parish life, something that is more important than our communion with God and with neighbor?
Let’s put it another way. Am I concerned with conforming my life, by my choices, to the pattern of Jesus Christ who chose public suffering, humiliation, and death in order that God’s will be accomplished? How that is lived out is complex, but it certainly is not going to happen by sleeping in and skipping church. Or by neglecting prayer. Or by binge watching Netflix. It should bring us face to face with our sinful state, it should humiliate us, in a good way, when our God does everything way better than we could ever hope. And so it should also compel us to urgently depend on him as if our life depends on it, because it does.
Sin, in other words, is a condition, a process of corruption, rather than a legal status or rules broken. We don’t inherit sin by virtue of being conceived or born, nor is sin just a human condition; it pervades the entire created order, the cosmos. We inherited a world diseased with and dominated by death, a world out of communion with its Creator, a world that Jesus came to forgive, heal, and save. And rather than primarily understand sin in the context of right/wrong and guilt/innocence, we prefer to understand it in terms of life/death and communion/disunity.
What is the result of sin?
What is the result of this disease of sin? We are bound, broken, paralyzed, moving toward death. This movement away from God, who is Life, reveals itself in the many broken things in our lives. We hurt and kill each other. We hurt and destroy creation. We succumb to illness. We are weak and easily enslaved to powerful things such as drugs, alcohol, money, success, status, and even technology. We are dominated by greed, envy, lust, anger. Sin drives us to hatred, violence, suicide, and division.
St. Gregory of Nyssa writes, “our diseased nature needed a healer.” Perhaps Jesus saw beneath the man’s paralysis, the condition of sin that comes with physical ailments: shame, despair, loneliness, humiliation, confinement. He came to forgive these, and everything else that ails us, binds us, and enslaves us: the hardship of divorce, broken families, death of loved ones, betrayal from friends and family, the wounds caused by physical and emotional abuse. Whatever debilitating circumstances we are currently experiencing, these are an opportunity for Jesus to share his divine gifts and blessings with us – his love and his healing forgiveness.
Forgiveness and healing
And what is the result of forgiveness? It unites and makes whole, brings us back into communion with God and with another. Prior to sharing Holy Communion, we read the confession together. As we are reading in unison, what should concern us is not broken rules, but broken communion which manifests itself in things such as pride, greed, laziness, lust, knowingly giving into evil and purposely keeping away from good deeds. When the priest absolves us from sin, those things which drew us away from life-giving communion with Jesus Christ, he is pronouncing that our broken communion is now restored, made whole and healed, so that we may once again share Holy Communion. Remember, Holy Communion is more than something placed on our tongue.
Forgiveness is God’s life, his grace, mercy, and salvation, it is that which unbinds us, and un-paralyzes all of our suffering. In Armenian the word for salvation is փրկութիւն (prgootyoon), which means to liberate, to set free. So when Jesus tells the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven,” (թողեալ լիցին քեզ մեղք քո) he is gifting salvation in that the paralytic is unbound, liberated, pardoned, and set free through forgiveness. His sins are forgotten, let go (see Isaiah 43:25, Hebrews 8:12). Apart from God, there is no healing, salvation, or forgiveness – there is only a life bound by sin, a life that tends toward selfish ambition, self reliance, self preservation, ego, division, and death. But we have a liberator, the one who unbinds us, resurrects us; we have a Savior – Jesus Christ.
You and I are the paralytic
Jesus said “Your sins are forgiven.” He then pushes the point to its final end when he says to the paralytic (by the way, each one of us is the paralytic), “Rise, take up your pallet and go home.” He is forgiven of sin and is given physical strength to stand up, carry his bed, and walk home. The power to heal is the power to forgive and the power to forgive is the power to heal. The two are one, they go hand in hand! Listen to the words of James in his epistle:
Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. (James 5:13-15)
Again, to be healed is to be forgiven, and to be forgiven is to be healed. Forgiveness is much more than righting a behavioral wrong or a broken rule, much broader than the context of the Law within which Jesus’ criticizers understood sin and forgiveness, and within which many of us (mis)understand it today. Again, forgiveness is the restoration or healing of the broken communion we have with God and with one another. St. Gregory of Narek, reflecting on this episode in the Gospels embeds himself, as should we, into the story of the paralytic:
Say to me also, wretched soul that I am, Lord, blessed and revered in all ways, “Arise, take the bed of your infirmity, the place of your destruction, and go to the tranquil repose of the life without toil.” Sever, with the omnipotent sword of your commanding word, the wrappings of the grave that hold me in the bonds of the underworld. Release me from the strangling noose that brutally demands my soul. Deliver those deserving death to the liberation of unending bliss on high by your life-giving and divine word. Do not hesitate, do not delay day by day, so the heavy burden of sin does not break my back, and destroy me, bend me downward, looking to hell. (58C)
Carried by the Faith of Others
Is it curious when the four friends tore through the roof, that Jesus didn’t see the faith of the paralytic, the one obviously in need of healing, the one we would most likely assume should have faith? It gets even more odd. Not only did Jesus recognize this particular destruction of someone else’s property as an act of faith, but it was the faith of the four friends that he saw! St. Gregory of Narek affirms that it was their faith and not that of the paralytic, who was perhaps not only totally dependent on others for all practical and physical needs, but even for faith in a God who seemed to have forgotten him:
And by becoming man, you, one of “the One who is,” your gifts of life, diverse talents, splendid divine work and miracles, poured down abundantly upon some who asked for themselves, and others who asked blessings for others. Moved by the faith of his nurses, you cured the cripple, though he was lacking in faith. (35A)
Minister to others from your pain
When we are in need of physical healing we tend to look for only that – physical healing. But it doesn’t always come. But does that mean God forgot us? There’s a broader component to the healing process Jesus wants us to be aware of which emerges in this story. Jesus says to the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.” In other words, pick up the very thing that has been the symbol of your suffering and take it with you. Don’t throw it away, carry it with you and go home. Our bed of suffering, a very personal symbol of pain (see Psalm 6:6), becomes a gift to others, serving as a platform from which we can bring healing to our neighbor, and on which we can carry them to Jesus. As one theologian reflected on our bed of pain: “Its very weight our measure of strength that has been restored to us.”
We all sin, we all carry pain. At this very moment each one of us is experiencing suffering on some level and it’s safe to assume we want healing from it. We can retreat from our fear, shame, doubt, rejection, loss, and hopelessness, but it just makes us more alone, more broken. Indeed, we don’t want to go through our pain alone, which is why we ask others to believe and pray for us. It is why we entreat the prayers of the Mother of God and the Saints of the Church.
Spread your healing to others
Whether or not I doubt, am I humble enough to approach my community and ask to be carried to the feet of Jesus? Does our faith overflow to believe for others? Who in our parish community is the “paralytic?” In what ways am I paralyzed? Who is that person in my life who needs to be carried, needs my faith, the experience of my own suffering in order to receive healing and forgiveness? Do we lift each other up and bear each other’s burdens, or are we the burden, tearing each other down? Do we believe what we pray during Badarak when we sing the song during the Kiss of Peace?
This Church has now become one soul, the kiss is given for a full bond. The enmity has been removed, and love is spread over us all.
Do we unite our hearts with the words of the deacons as they chant Գոհութիւն?
Let us ask deliverance for those of our brethren who have been made captive, and grace to the congregation here present.
Faith is not only personal, but communal and collective. If you can’t believe, let others believe for you. The mission of the Church is to stand side by side with the poor and the downtrodden, those suffering with pain, and to lift them up. If we see someone in our respective communities, let’s join together, pick them up, and carry them. We are responsible for each other. That is what it means to be a community, family, a Christ-centered community – the Body of Christ. In faith, like the four friends who carried their paralyzed friend, carry others to Jesus Christ so they can hear the loving, healing words of our Savior, “Your sins are forgiven.”
How Does Our Faith Look?
Why didn’t Jesus see the friends tearing up the roof as an interruption as he was speaking, or an inconvenience to the sold out crowd that was trying to listen? Jesus didn’t waste words, so we can be sure that he was in the middle of saying something profound, no? Perhaps what the four friends demonstrated was precisely the model of child-like faith to which Jesus often referred and desires to see.
The story of the paralytic being lowered through the roof is found in three of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and interestingly, none of the accounts record any words from the four friends (nor any words from the paralytic). Rather, the Gospel writers make it clear that Jesus saw their faith! In light of this, how then should we understand faith?
Faith is visible
Faith is visible, concrete, active, lived out. It’s not an abstract idea or mental assent. It’s not about saying the right words or throwing around Christian lingo. It’s not merely agreeing with the Creed. Even demons believe the Creed! (James 2:19) Rather, faith expects. It tears through obstacles. It loves when it seems so much easier to hate. Faith is confident that our effort is worthwhile and never goes unnoticed by God, even if he chooses to respond differently than we desire. We know that living by faith is the right way to live, the way we were created and born to live.
Does our faith demonstrate ingenuity? Boldness? Do we come close to a faith that expects anything from Jesus, a faith that digs and digs no matter what obstacle is in our way? Do we view obstacles or temptations as roadblocks, or as opportunities to demonstrate and test the strength of our faith? Do we practice a faith that is visible to God, to others, one that invites others into living their true existence in communion with their Creator? One thing is for certain, faith is not a private or personal matter. If you can’t articulate your faith with words, then be sure to articulate it with your deeds. Faith is meant to be seen, shared, talked about, demonstrated, worn on our sleeves, a shining light in the darkness! Had it been kept private, perhaps Armenia, and a myriad of other geographical areas, would have remained in the darkness of paganism.
If only we, each of us individually and as the Armenian Church, would do what it takes to experience and display a faith that when seen by others they would respond and glorify God saying, “We never saw anything like this!”