by the Rev. Dr. Robert Dykstra, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ
Gospel: St. Mark 2: 1-12
A reading from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Mark:
"When Jesus returned to Capernaum...it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they dug through the roof above him, and they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven."
Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, "Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?"
Jesus said to them, "Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Stand up and take your mat and walk?' But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins"--he said to the paralytic--"I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home." And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this!"
She was being so unrealistic, and it was beginning to bother me. The vase sat on the kitchen counter week after week, and she seemed incapable of doing anything about it. She was paralyzed by love for it, no doubt, but paralyzed nonetheless, unable to bring herself to do what we all knew she eventually would have to do.
I was living with this wonderful elderly woman of considerable means who rented rooms in her spacious home to impoverished graduate students the likes of me. In her dining room, standing alone in a reserved space on the buffet under the gleam of recessed accent lights, stood a crystal vase of Steuben glass. It was the most beautiful vase I had ever seen. It had a deep center but then quickly flared out to a wide, flat rim, so that when she would fill it with fresh tulips they soon would fall lazily down around the rim, the way of tulips, into a graceful swirl. She loved the vase and so did I.
Steuben glass and I had not been entirely strangers. Even before I moved into her home I used to take the train from Princeton to Manhattan every now and again, and I'd walk down Fifth Avenue with its great stores--Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany's, and the rest. The Steuben Glass store was there, too, and more than once I'd wandered in to gaze in its darkened rooms, more museum than store. I would gasp at the price tags: one thousand dollars for this vase, five thousand for that, ten thousand for the little crystal polar bears. I'd been exposed to Steuben before, although since we traveled in different social circles this was the first time we were living together up close and personal.
You know what I'm going to say next. But it wasn't my fault. There was another graduate student living in that home at the time, and one day, when our landlady was out of town for a week and the other student was washing out the remains of some tulips from the Steuben, she dinged it on the sink. A one-inch triangle of glass broke from its rim, and the rest of it cracked from the center point of the triangle all the way down to its base. The other student, even more economically destitute than I, could only cry. We left it in all its pathos on the kitchen counter, sick to death at what had happened.
Our landlady returned, found her beloved vase where we'd left it, and found herself, understandably enough, a little broken as well. She wasn't angry so much as bereaved, and for days which turned to weeks she left it lying there in state on the kitchen counter, unable to bring herself to do the inevitable. "Maybe they can fix it somehow," she would say from time to time, looking for any glimmer of encouragement from me. "You can't repair broken crystal," I'd reply, realistic to the core. And she knew it, too. She was being so unrealistic, and it was beginning to bother me. She was paralyzed by love for it, no doubt, but paralyzed nonetheless, unable to face what we all knew she had to face. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, sand to Steuben to sand.
The young man on his mat wasn't the sole paralyzed one in that room, only the most obvious.
His friends, too, were paralyzed in a way, unable to face what everyone knew they had to face. For weeks which turned into months his friends had refused to face facts, unwilling to hear what everyone kept telling them. The prognosis was worse than grave, the doctors would say; nerve cells simply don't regenerate like other cells, they'd say. Yet his friends refused to face reality, hauling him from one clinic to the next, "Maybe you can fix him somehow," looking for any glimmer of encouragement in the doctors' eyes. "You can't repair broken spinal cords," they'd reply, realistic to the core. And the friends knew it, too. They were paralyzed by love for him, unable to face what everyone knew they had to face.
You can't help but pity the delusion in their determination to give it yet another try. "He's doing some remarkable things," they'd heard of Jesus.
So they loaded up their paralyzed friend and hauled him over to Peter's house where Jesus was preaching the word that day. If we were talking about people in their right minds they would've given up the ghost as soon as they saw the traffic backed up for blocks. But these were friends paralyzed by love, undaunted by reality, so rather than face facts and turn back they hoofed it instead to the back alley and up the fire escape and in an inspired act of intercessory vandalism started digging right through the mud roof of the little house: "they removed the roof above Jesus; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay."
For some reason Jesus didn't object to this terrible interruption, perhaps because Jesus himself was never one to be much constrained by reality. Whatever the reason, what happened next was the craziest thing of all: "When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven," not exactly what the friends were hoping to hear.
He wasn't the sole paralyzed one in that room, only the most obvious.
Early in my ministry I worked for a year as a chaplain in the spinal cord intensive care unit of a hospital in downtown Chicago, where most of the patients were young men my age recently paralyzed by car accidents or athletic injuries or gunshot wounds, a frightening place for me to work. It all seemed so senseless, so hopeless, so final. Nerve cells simply don't regenerate like other cells. And in retrospect I think that I, the young chaplain, was likely as paralyzed by it all as the patient with Frankenstein's bolts screwed into his head.
He was in his twenties, a complete injury, in the first weeks after his accident. We talked, and he told me about all the things he was going to do to get to walking again, how hard he was going to work at regaining the use of his legs. I knew otherwise, of course, and maybe he himself knew it, too. Since I thought it might be better for him to face the music now and begin to adjust to the reality of his injury, I told him as gently as I could that he wouldn't walk again. Those were the last words he allowed me to say to him.
The young man's father got wind of what I'd told his son and in fury called up my supervisor demanding that disciplinary action be taken. My supervisor investigated and determined that I had read the chart properly, I knew the facts, I was being realistic with the young man, I was telling the truth; so he backed me up and nothing more came of it.
But it's so obvious to me now that the young man in this case was right, and that I was wrong. I'm convinced now that my reality was far too small, too arrogant, too pat. I can say today that I am getting tired of being paralyzed by reality and, if it came to a choice, I'm beginning to think that I'd rather be paralyzed by self-delusion. There's something far more attractive to me about my landlady's crazy hopes for her beloved vase, about the young man's friends tearing out the roof, than all my little certainties put together. If I had been that young man in that hospital, I hope that I'd have thrown me out of that room, too.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Child, your sins are forgiven." Jesus' words didn't sit well with some there who kept suffering from a bad bout of realism. Some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, "Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?"
But get this: the scribes were right, realistic to the core--even Jesus must've known that. It's one thing for Jesus to forgive the paralytic if he had committed sins against Jesus himself, but quite another if he'd committed sins against someone else. The scribes were right. God alone can forgive those kinds of sins. Yet in an act of intercessory vandalism no less destructive of conventional structures than the inspired mayhem of the paralytic's friends, Jesus razes the roof with his blasphemy, "Your sins are forgiven."
Jesus ripped right through the pastoral professionals' little religious truths, and when the dust settled and the air cleared he saw their furrowed brows and said, "Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Stand up and take your mat and walk?'" You and I would have answered by saying that, well, actually we really would need to see it to believe it since everyone knows that nerve cells just don't regenerate like the rest; but Jesus leaves little doubt that regenerating nerve cells is nothing compared to what he's up against with sin.
The young man on that mat was not the sole person paralyzed in that room, only the most obvious.
"I think I'm going to call up Steuben to see if they might not be able to fix it," she said to me one more time. I tried to keep from rolling my eyes. Undaunted by my response, call up Steuben she finally did. She told them, "I love the vase and I know it's crazy and all, but wondered if you might have some suggestion as to what I might do."
"We're so sorry for your loss," Steuben said, "but the vase you're describing is no longer in production." (What had I told her?) But what Steuben said next took our breath away. What they said was this: "If you'll bring the broken vase up to our store, our artists can fashion a replacement at our expense. We will copy and replace it at no charge." Steuben would bear the high cost of what we ourselves had broken.
Our realities are so small, yours and mine. Our realities are, "You can't fix broken crystal," or "Nerve cells don't regenerate," or "You'd better turn back since there's such a crowd around Jesus," or "You can't forgive someone's sins unless they've sinned specifically against you." These realities are true, yes. True, but too small.
You see, this was no ordinary vase. This vase was a Steuben. I had failed in failed little reality to consider the source, the maker, of this vase. The young man on his mat, the young man in his hospital room, were not just paralytics to be dismissed by realistic doctors or chaplains, but someone's beloved friend, a father's beloved son, a Steuben, handcrafted from sand by God. So many paralyzed people, paralyzed by realities so deadly because they are partly true. Give me the illusions of my landlady for her beloved vase, give me the delusions of the paralytic's friends, give me the blasphemies of Jesus any day over my pathetic little realities, my pious little orthodoxies. By the time the dust has settled and the air has cleared, you've got to wonder just who the paralyzed in this story really are.
"But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sin," Jesus said to the paralytic. "I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home." And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this!"
About the Author:
The Rev. Dr. Robert Dykstra is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. He has been a pastor, a hospital chaplain, and a pastoral counselor, and was associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, before accepting his position at Princeton in 1997. Robert is the author of Counseling Troubled Youth and the forthcoming Passion Stories: A Primer for Pastoral Preaching.
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