Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Getting it backward

I'm behind, so this will be a brief reflection this week.

The lessons for the seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time:

  • Isaiah 43:18-19, 21-22, 24b-25
  • Psalm 41:2-3, 4-5, 13-14
  • 2 Corinthians 1:18-22
  • Mark 2:1-12
Looking at the Gospel lesson for this week, I think we can learn more by looking at the end, then the beginning:
Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves,
"Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming.
Who but God alone can forgive sins?"
Jesus immediately knew in his mind
what they were thinking to themselves,
so he said, “Why are you thinking such things in your hearts?
Which is easier, to say to the paralytic,
'Your sins are forgiven,'
or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk?’

But that you may know
that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth"
—he said to the paralytic,
"I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.
He rose, picked up his mat at once,
and went away in the sight of everyone.
They were all astounded
and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this."
(emphasis mine)

In the question "Which is easier," Jesus demonstrates that the scribes are practical atheists. In the words of French Catholic philosopher √Čtienne Borne, "Practical atheism is not the denial of the existence of God, but complete godlessness of action . . . " A practical atheist may talk as if God exists, but acts as if it did not matter.

The scribes today mutter about blasphemy, looking only at the words that Jesus utter, and not what he is really doing. What they face instead is the question of whether it is easier to say that sins are forgiven, or to say that the paralytic is healed. To the scribes it is easier to declare forgiveness, no matter how forbidden, as they think that change would only be internal, or invisible. How would you tell if the paralytic's sins had really been forgiven or not -- things would look the same. Now if the paralytic really got up and walked away, that would be different. Jesus declaring the paralytic forgiven was just a meaningless and insulting grandstand play. It is just not reasonable that God is really acting in front of them -- they act as if God does not actually act in this world until someone proves differently.

But in reality, things are completely reversed. All it takes for the paralytic to walk is to repair some physical defect, which in this context would be an act of magic, using supernatural power to carry out some change in a mysterious way. All Jesus would be is a more sucessful, or at least more more clever, sorcerer or wonder-worker. In declaring God's forgiveness, Jesus is saying the whole person, inside and out, is restored to wholeness in the most fundamental and profound way. In this case physical healing is but a sign of this more profound restoration. If you understand and believe what Jesus is proclaiming of the coming of the Reign of God, there is no question what is the more profound healing here. The scribes words imply their own lack of practical belief in the Scriptures they interpret or the God they describe.

The crowd is a little better -- at least they glorify God for what Jesus does. But it still takes the flashy healing rather than the profound deliverance to impress them. And, at least according to Mark, none of them ask for forgiveness themselves. Little wonder that Jesus will ask those he heals not to spread the word around. The sign is not supposed to upstage what it points to.

Now, the practical theists in this story, the ones acting as if God is real, are the friends who brought the paralytic to Jesus, even though they had to break through the roof. All of this brings out a few key points to remember:
  • Faith is as much group as individual - it is the faith of the paralytic's friends that moves Jesus. We as modern people we are individualists and are often blind to how much the faith (or lack thereof) of those close to us affects us. Or we are so isolated, so alienated from others that we get little help from other's faith.
  • Reconciliation with God is fundamental - The reality here that the physical healing points to is God restoring the relationship between him and the paralytic. As with the last few lessons, this affects more than just this individual's physical health. Jesus complete's the restoration by telling the former paralytic to go home. The person who had been disabled and unclean is now a full member of the community once again.
  • Not everyone is happy with change - Not too much surprise here, but we should note that it is often the ones who should be the most open to God's action that resist the most. We often need to look in the mirror on this.
On to next week.

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