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ss nucleus - winter 1996,  Healing of a Paralysed Man

Healing of a Paralysed Man

This article continues our series, looking through the eyes of Dr Luke at Jesus, the Great Physician.

One day as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law, who had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem, were sitting there. And the power of the Lord was present for him to heal the sick. Some men came carrying a paralytic on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said, 'Friend, your sins are forgiven'.

The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, 'Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?'

Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, 'Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Which is easier: to say "Your sins are forgiven", or to say, "Get up and walk"? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...' He said to the paralysed man, 'I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home'. Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, 'We have seen remarkable things today'.  (Luke 5:17-26)

Luke places this dramatic incident immediately after the healing of the leprosy victim. It occurred early on in Jesus' teaching ministry, when news about this remarkable new rabbi was spreading throughout Galilee and the rest of Palestine. Luke stresses that there were a large number of professional religious people in the audience, and this is the first time he refers to the Pharisees in his narrative. They were a small (numbering about 6000 in all) but important social group in First Century Israel. They were the synagogue teachers, self-appointed guardians of the Torah, the Old Testament Law, and committed to meticulous observance of the 613 specific commands that they had found in the Torah. They were deeply conservative and traditionalist in their outlook and it's hardly surprising that they were suspicious of this radical new rabbi who seemed to pose a threat to their powerful position. Now they had come to listen to his teaching and make up their minds about him.

The rest of the crowd, packed into the house that Jesus was visiting, had not come for theological insights or disputation. Most of them were there because of the possibility of some excitement, preferably a dramatic healing miracle. And they were not going to be disappointed. As Luke puts it cryptically, 'The power of the Lord was (literally) in him for healing'. The setting is painted dramatically with a minimum of words. The packed and fascinated crowd, the hostile Pharisees, Jesus in the middle teaching and explaining. Suddenly, a mysterious cracking noise, and, before the crowd's startled gaze, a hole appears in the roof! Through the flat clay ceiling appear several sweating figures holding a mat with an obviously paralysed man, who is deposited unceremoniously at Jesus' feet, right in centre stage. The flow of teaching is interrupted, a dramatic hush descends. You can almost hear the suspense. Everyone is on tiptoe waiting to see what is going to happen next. Will Jesus ignore the paralysed man? Will he lose his temper because of the interruption? Perhaps this is the moment for a demonstration of the spectacular healing power they have all heard about.

Surprising priorities!

In full view of the crowd, Jesus turns to the man and says 'Friend, your sins are forgiven'. Consternation! I suspect most of the crowd are disappointed. This seems tame stuff, as miracles go. The man is still lying on his mat. To the religious professionals, however, this is not merely a disappointment. This is blasphemy. Claiming to heal people is one thing - unconventional, unorthodox, but hardly to be condemned out of hand; claiming to forgive sins however was completely beyond the pale. The professional theologians knew the hidden implication to which the rest of the crowd were oblivious. By claiming the ability to forgive sins Jesus was claiming to be equal to God himself. In the teaching of the Pharisees, blasphemy was the most evil sin to which any human being could stoop. No wonder they were both outraged and secretly delighted at the same time. This dangerous new rabbi was trapped by his own words, public words that had been uttered in front of many witnesses.

Jesus turns to the Pharisees and disconcertingly reveals that he knows their thoughts only too well. Yes, he agrees, the claim to forgive sins is far more wide-ranging in its implications than physical healing. But anyone can claim to forgive sins. Where is the proof that Jesus really has this authority, that he is who he claims to be? Directly addressing the Pharisees, Jesus says in effect, 'Now watch, this is the proof', then turns to the paralysed man and commands him to stand. Instantaneously the man stands, then, in demonstration of complete recovery of his motor power and co-ordination, he stoops, picks up his mat and walks out of the house, shouting his praises to God.

Luke describes the reaction of the crowd in literal Greek as 'bewilderment' and 'fear'. It is the reaction of those who came hoping to see a spectacle, but went home conscious that God himself was in their midst. The miracle was not just proof that Jesus cared about the paralysed man, it was proof that he was someone altogether greater than they could have imagined.

Materialistic priests?

Healing has always been popular - it will always attract the crowds. The surprising popularity of medical TV documentaries are a modern demonstration that the crowds of the twentieth century global village are not much different from the crowds of Galilee and Jerusalem. Of course, the more spectacular the healing 'miracle' is, the better. Open-heart surgery is a better bet for prime-time television than psychogeriatrics! But even so, as health professionals, if we concentrate on our success stories we are bound to be popular. Health and physical healing are a particular preoccupation of our culture.

Part of the popularity of medicine and health care is because physical healing fits in with the materialistic assumptions and preoccupations of our culture. After all, if the material and physical realities of life are the most significant part of our existence, then getting and maintaining physical health is of prime importance. Disease and disability on the other hand, is the most threatening and disastrous thing that can happen to a person. Small wonder, then, that health care is seen as such an important and significant aspect of modern society. It's not surprising too that the high-priests of technological medicine have replaced the priests of organised religion. When it comes to prime-time television, a bishop has little popular appeal compared with a 'top consultant' and at a local community level the GP has replaced the vicar as the source of pastoral care.

So our work as health professionals will always be popular, and its importance and significance will always be understood by the masses. This is not necessarily a bad thing. As modern-day healers we have a natural credibility in our culture. It can give us opportunities to communicate to and even influence our culture which many professional theologians and Christian communicators don't have. These are opportunities which we should be prepared to grasp. But we must beware of adopting the materialistic assumptions of our age and of our profession.

An integrated approach

What Dr Luke's case history tells us is that disease is more than just the outward and the physical. Yes, the man was paralysed, he knew that, his friends knew it, the crowd could see it. But to Jesus, his physical paralysis was not the whole story. The spiritual dimension of sin and forgiveness could not be ignored. In the perspective of the incarnate Son of God, unforgiven sin was in reality a greater blight in this man's life than the obvious and debilitating paralysis. This was the greater disease. So by addressing the spiritual disease first Jesus challenged the physical assumptions of the crowd, and of the patient himself. Of course Jesus brought physical healing as well as spiritual healing. The spiritual and the physical healing were really two sides of the same coin. The miraculous physical transformation was a demonstration of an equally miraculous inward renewal. It is the connection between the inner spiritual and the outer physical aspects of healing which Dr Luke is keen to stress. Jesus demonstrated an integrated approach to healing. He combined the spiritual and the physical showing how they were both aspects of a wider reality. But in this case history, Jesus took care to point out it was the spiritual disease which was more significant. To heal this man's paralysis without healing his inner disease was not sufficient.

This is not a popular message for our materialistic culture. As long as we concentrate on physical healing we will fit in with what our culture expects. If we dare to suggest, like Jesus, that spiritual disease can be as significant as physical paralysis, then we risk unpopularity, even outrage. But if we are to be true followers of our Lord we must attempt to practise integrated healing, however difficult this may be in our modern hospitals, our professional structures and our health service. We must try to keep together what our materialistic secular culture wants to separate. Of course as paid employees in the National Health Service we must not abuse our position of trust to concentrate on our patients' spiritual needs either. But we need to think through carefully what practical steps we can take to integrate physical and spiritual healing in our own professional practice.

There is a profound, if complex, connection between the inner spiritual and the outer physical aspects of disease and healing. As followers of Jesus we need to be concerned about both, whatever the consequences will be for our popularity or our professional reputations.

John Wyatt is Emeritus Professor of Neonatal Paediatrics at UCL and Senior Researcher at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, University of Cambridge. He is currently leading a multidisciplinary research project into the social, philosophical and religious implications of advances in artificial intelligence and robotics,based at the Faraday Institute. He is also the President of CMF

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