…That insight seems to me to have a lot to do with the crisis in our world today about how we are going to take care of that world. The story is the same one we hear in the other 3 Gospels in a very different form. You may remember it: there’s a man lying on a pallet being carried in by his friends to see Jesus. The crowd is so great that the friends have to lower the guy down through the roof to where Jesus is. When Jesus sees him he doesn’t say, first, ‘Get up and walk;’ he says, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, which causes a big controversy with the authorities. Well, here’s a guy lying on a pallet, which he is eventually going to pick up and carry around; there’s a problem with getting to where help is, and a problem about friends (in this case the lack of same), and something about a roof (those 5 porticoes….), and a big kerfuffle with the authorities and, most telling of all, the weird association between paralysis and sin. These are obviously two versions of the same story.
Which should make us prick up our ears, because the S-word is not a topic in which John is particularly interested; nor does the way it crops up in his version of the story immediately make sense. Jesus heals the guy, sends him off, meets him again after he’s been hassled by the authorities and says, ‘Sin no more’. Why? What has the guy done to deserve such a warning? Jesus can’t mean that some former sins caused his paralysis – we know from the story of the blind man a few chapters from now that you don’t get blind or paralysed because you (or your parents) have sinned. What can Jesus be referring to?
Asking this question is like sticking a pitchfork into a hornets’ nest. The answers are very scary, but quite clear. In the very first conversation between our guy and Jesus, the Lord says, ‘Do you want to be healed?’ And what does the guy say? ‘It’s not my fault; it’s those other people – I can’t get into the pool by myself, and they get in before me….’ He doesn’t even try to answer Jesus’s question about his own reality; all he does is weasel and pass the buck. Jesus doesn’t try to fix that; he just fixes the guy’s legs and sends him on his way.
It happens to be a Sabbath, so when the purity-police see him carrying his bed (which is work, which you aren’t supposed to do on a Sabbath), they’re all over him. And he responds to them exactly as he did to Jesus: ‘It’s not my fault; it was that other guy who made me do it….’ Well, who was the guy? He doesn’t know. He’s been lying there for 38 years waiting to be healed, and it finally happens – and he doesn’t know who did it? Are you getting the picture? This is a guy so preoccupied with making sure that he can’t be blamed for anything, that he can’t even acknowledge the most basic reality of his life: he was sick; he’s well; he’s free; he’s under a huge obligation to the one who healed him…. None of that matters, as long as he doesn’t have to take any responsibility for any of it. It’s obvious by this time that the paralysis in his legs is small potatoes compared to the paralysis in his soul.
So you can see why when Jesus finds him he says, ‘Sin no more’ – because sinning is what he’s been doing ever since we met him – sin as John defines it, sin as denial of truth, denial of reality. There he is beside the pool, un-able to tell the most rudimentary truth about himself; and here is the truth – Reality with a capital R – Jesus, standing in front of him, telling him to get up and walk – and he can’t face either of them. I can imagine you saying to yourself, ‘Well, that’s not exactly sin… But it’s the heart and center of sin, the fundamental ‘move’ that the human spirit makes to protect itself from something it feels as a threat – and if that something happens to be something true or good or necessary, then protecting yourself from it is a move that cuts off your relation to that truth, that goodness, that necessity as surely as any immoral action you could do. So it’s no surprise to see that when the guy does take action – the first time we see him display any kind of initiative – it’s to go back to the au-thorities and let them know where Jesus is, so they can go after him. That basic spiritual ‘move’ of self-protection against the truth leads straight to sinful action: the betrayal of truth itself, betrayal of the Son of God…
It’s a sordid and depressing story, but its insight into the human heart, and the heart of sin, is crucial. The paralysis that we see in this man – the inability to respond when he’s faced with uncomfortable truth – is exactly what we see all around us in our nation and world today. We know that how we use the earth’s resources isn’t sustainable; we know that continuing to burn fossil fuels will kill us and much of the life of our planet; we have every bit of information we need to understand how we misuse the earth and where it will lead. The best scientific opinion is that it’s already too late to stop the changes in our climate, our oceans, our water supplies, that will be absolutely disastrous for human civilisation, not to mention the animals and plants we were commanded by God to take care of. And we go right on doing what we do, as if none of that were real.
It’s just as bad in other areas of our life. We know from history that the ongoing transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich has meant disaster for every civilization that has done it – and we have been doing it for almost 40 years now, and do it more every year. We know that where money rules democracy dies – and we go right on electing the best governments money can buy, at every level, most of them nothing but tools of the huge corporations that finance their campaigns. We know that preventing disease and disaster is infinitely cheaper than trying to fix it after it happens – but we won’t do things like immunise all our children or tax cigarettes out of the market as our neighbors do, because that would make us, God forbid, into a ‘nanny-state’.
We can, however, pour money into the most wasteful health-care system in the world, making the chief executives of insurance companies fabulously rich instead of using those resources to make all our people minimally well. We have seemingly infinite cash for building prisons, with exponentially more people in them than any other nation in the world – as Joan Chittister reminded Anne and me yesterday at the Erie County prayer breakfast – but somehow there’s never money for the schools and hospitals and jobs that we know keep people out of prison. The truth is all around us of a society in which the powerful, to preserve their power, have abandoned all responsibility to anyone else – they no longer even believe that power requires such responsibility – and the rest of us can’t do anything to change that.
And our society’s response to all this? ‘It’s not my fault: it’s those Chinese; it’s those kids; it’s those gay people; it’s those illegal immigrants; it’s those Others; it’s everybody, in fact, but me.’ To the crises in all areas of our society’s life, the favorite response seems to be, first, denial that there is anything wrong at all. Determined ignorance has now become not just a fallback position, but almost an article of religion to huge segments of our population. And if sometimes that can be shown to be crazy (and crazy is also no longer an unusual belief system among us), the next move is to equally determined lies. We have entire TV and radio and computer networks devoted to propagating those 2 things. Our leaders and would-be leaders call press conferences to tell us that there’s no such thing as cli-mate change, and what will fix anything that might be wrong is more money for the rich and guns for everyone.
And if it ever does become possible to show the ignorance and the lies up for what they are, the next response is usually distraction. Violence is a favorite: start another war, put another million people in jail, give 4-year-olds guns (but not Head Start programs), fan every flame of ethnic or class or gender or regional hatred, invent another video game, turn the music and the TV up louder…. Our culture prefers those things to being put into contact with reality; and much of it doesn’t even want that contact any more, now that it can sense how terrifying the reality actually is. And Jesus stands before us; the prophets stand before us; if we can bring ourselves to imagine them, the generations to come stand before us, and they say ‘Sin no more.’
On this Sunday when we hear about the glories of the heavenly city and its trees and its river, in a world in which our own actions are destroying the trees and drying up the rivers – on this Sunday when we remind ourselves of our responsibility to the natural world God created, and the political and cultural worlds we create, which depend absolutely on it – the question for us too is the same: ‘Do you want to be healed?’ Healing for this paralyzed society will mean accepting the reality of our situation and the drastic changes required of us to change it. It will mean taking on the humility to acknowledge the sinfulness of our ways (not least our denial of that); it will mean defying the powers and principalities of this world, who care for nothing in it except preserving their own power at any price. What we have to counter that is nothing but the power of God’s creative love, the power of our own unity of purpose (if we can ever find that); the power of our example of humility, of truth-telling, of simplicity of life, and, most fundamentally, that assurance of Jesus: ‘My Father is working still, and I am working…’. All that is the power of the holy cross, which is the power of reality itself. Will it be enough to change our world, as it has been able to change us? I don’t know. I only know that it’s all we have, and that we have to try.