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Mark 2:1-12
7th Sunday after the Epiphany - Year B


Our text is the intersection between the miraculous healings (without controversy) that occur before it and the conflicts (with and without miracles) that occur after it. As such, it is both a healing story and a controversy story. Also, within this text is the first occurrence in Mark of Jesus using the phrase "Son of man".

SETTING THE SCENE vv. 1-2

How long was Jesus out in the wilderness ("country" in NRSV, 1:45)? The Greek word is eremos which refers primarily to a sparsely populated place in contrast to the polis or "city". Such areas often had little or no vegetation, thus it is translated with such words as "desert," "wilderness," "deserted place". It was the place of John the Baptist's ministry (1:3, 4), the place of Jesus' temptation (1:12, 13), and where Jesus went to get away and pray (1:35).

Jesus is already at (his? Peter's? someone's?) home when "it is heard" that he is there. Did Jesus sneak into town to try and avoid the massive crowds?

It seems a bit ironic to me that Jesus comes into town, tries not to be noticed, and yet attracts more people than the house can hold once the rumor of his presence is spread by word of mouth. In contrast to this, many denominations and congregations are undertaking advertising campaigns to try and make their presence known to their local populations. Everything that I've read indicates that word of mouth is by far the most effective way of bringing new people into the church. What might it indicate about our members when they say nothing to anyone about their church, its activities, or their faith?

Jesus was telling the "the word" (logos). This word connects our text with the previous story, where the leper went out and began "to spread the word" (1:45). From that verse, we get a hint that the spread of the "logos" may cause problems for Jesus. The next time the word is used in Mark, it is part of the explanation of the parable of the sower (4:14-20). This "parable section" concludes with the narrator's comment: "With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; ..." (4:33). From this verse, we might surmise that the word Jesus was speaking in the house in Capernaum was in parabolic form.

BRINGING THE PARALYTIC vv. 3-4

The Greek word paralytikos comes from the verb paralyo, which literally means, "to be relax (disabled) on the side." It could refer to any type of "lameness" or even "weakness" as the phrase "paralyzed knees" in Heb 12:12 seems to suggest. We can't know the exact infirmity of the person who was brought to Jesus, except that he was unable to walk.

There is a bit of ironic humor that doesn't come through in the translations. At the end of v. 3 there is the phrase "being taken up by four (men)." The same verb is used three times later in the story. Twice Jesus uses it in the phrase: "Take up your mat" (vv. 9, 11) and then the man "takes up the mat" (v. 12). The four had to carry the guy and the mat to Jesus (actually all the way up to the roof and then down to Jesus), but afterwards, the man will have to carry his mat home by himself.

Mark's word for "mat" (krabattos) is not used by either Matthew (9:1-8) nor Luke (5:17-26) in their accounts of this miracle, although John uses it in a slightly different healing of a paralyzed man (5:1-18). Mark's term refers specifically to a mat used by the poor. It was rolled up during the day to give more room in a small house. For travel, it became a suitcase as needed items were rolled up within it.

FAITH AND FORGIVENESS v. 5

Jesus sees their faith. This phrase raises some interesting questions.

Who are "they"? Just the four mat carriers? (Could they also have been Matt carriers <g>.) All five men?

How could Jesus see it?

What is faith? Whenever "faith" (pistis) is mentioned in conjunction with miracles in Mark, it seems to imply perseverance -- overcoming obstacles in order to get to Jesus.

In our text, there are the obstacles of the man's inability to walk, the crowd blocking a normal way to Jesus, and the roof blocking the abnormal way to get to Jesus. In spite of those obstacles, the four guys are persistent and resourceful enough to get the paralyzed man to Jesus.

The next time pistis is used, Jesus is criticizing his disciples for having no faith (4:40). Instead, they were afraid. The storm at sea that created their fear had become an obstacle to their faith. Their trust in Jesus did not persevere in the midst of the storm.

A woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years also encounters the obstacle of a crowd. There is also the greater obstacle of her uncleanness -- and the untouchability connected with her disease. She doesn't let these obstacles keep her from touching Jesus' clothes. Jesus comments about her faith (5:34).

Finally, a blind beggar, faces the obstacle of not being able to see who was passing by on the road. There is the additional obstacle of the people telling him to shut up. He is loudly persistent. Jesus calls him. (He would need help finding Jesus given his handicap.) Jesus comments on his faith (10:52).

I think that the "faith" that Jesus saw was the perseverance of the four men. He will test their perseverance. We are never told if the paralyzed man wanted to be there. I wonder what the four might have said to him so that he would be willing to be hauled to the house, and up to the roof, and down through the hole. Could the conversation between the four and the one be anything like what we might tell other people to invite them to come to church?

Ben Witherington (The Gospel of Mark) describes the demonstration of their faith: "They dared to do the difficult, the dangerous, the controversial in order to bring their friend into the presence of Jesus" [p. 115]. Do we have that kind of determination to bring troubled people into the presence of Jesus? If we do bring them to church, where Jesus has promised to be present in the gathering, in the word, and in the meal, what do we expect Jesus to do?

I'm fairly certain that the reason the four guys went to so much trouble to get their friend to Jesus is that they expected Jesus to heal him. (I once did a children's-type sermon in which I had a repeated refrain. Whenever I said: "And they said," the congregation responded: "Oh, my aching arms.")

How would they react after all their work and aching arms, and Jesus says, "Child, your sins are forgiven"? "Drats," may be as strong a word that can be said in most pulpits. I don't think that they wanted to haul their friend back up through the hole in the roof. I don't think that they wanted to carry him back home. I don't think that they wanted him to continue to have to beg for food.

I'm sure that there are other reasons for Jesus declaring forgiveness (which we will look at later), but, as I noted above, it would also be a test of their faith -- their perseverance. That wasn't why they had gone to all their work to bring their friend to Jesus.

I want to take a more detailed look at Jesus declaration to the paralytic: "Child, your sins are forgiven."

"Child" (or it could be "my child" -- teknon as an address of endearment). Jesus is declaring this paralyzed person to be part of his family. The only other time Jesus uses this word to address people, it is to his disciples (10:24). This lame man, this outcast, this beggar, is someone Jesus calls "my child." In a similar way, Jesus will call the unclean, bleeding woman, "Daughter" (5:34). However, in contrast to the calling of the disciples, Jesus does not tell this man to "follow me," but "to go home." I wonder what makes the difference.

The use of teknon may also suggest that the paralytic was a young child. Its other uses in Mark seem to point to (either literally or figuratively) children: (7:27; 10:29, 30, 12:19; 13:12).

What are "your sins"? This is a crucial question. In the first century -- and even today -- there is a belief that suffering and illnesses are the direct result of one's sins (or with birth defects, sins inherited from the parents -- we know that drugs and medications taken by an expectant mother can affect the child). Does Jesus mean to support that view of suffering -- that this man (or his parents) must have committed some sin for him to be in the condition he is in? We know from Jesus' discussion in John 9 with the Pharisees who held this view, that Jesus' did not believe that individual handicaps were a direct result of someone's sin.

What does Mark mean by "sins" (hamartiai)? This word (always in the plural) only occurs in our text (2:5, 7, 9, 10) and in the preaching of the John the Baptist (1:4, 5). The emphasis in these texts is that sins can be forgiven.

A closely related word, (hamartema), is used in 3:28, 29 where Jesus indicates that all sins, except one can be forgiven.

Another related word, (hamartolos), is used in 2:15, 16, 17 to refer to the "sinners" with whom Jesus eats and calls -- and is criticized for doing so. It is also used in 8:38 and 14:41 to refer to those who will not believe in Jesus and who will crucify him.

The basic classical meaning of the verbal form of this word (hamartano, which does not occur in Mark) is "to miss the mark." For example, throwing spears at a target. From that, it means "to fail in doing something" or "to fail in achieving a purpose."

There is a sense in which a paralyzed man is "missing the mark" of being a whole person. In first century thinking, as I mentioned above, this physical problem was considered to have been the result (or punishment) for some sin.

Grundmann (harmartano, Theological Dictionary of the NT, vol. 1) in his section on sin in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts writes:

If we investigate the terms and their place in these Gospels, we find certain significant features which may be reduced to the two fold statement, first, that Jesus did not speak of sin and its nature and consequences, but was conscious of its reality (e.g., in the Sermon on the Mount) and acted accordingly, and second, that in His acts and sayings He was conscious of being the Victor over sin. [p. 303]

He goes on to suggest that the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) gives us Jesus' understanding of sin: "It is going out from the father's house, i.e., godlessness and remoteness from God working itself out in a life in the world with all its desires and its filth. ... Jesus shows what penitence is as well as sin, namely, the way to God as the Father who receives the sinner with love." [p. 303]

Perhaps more simply stated, sin is defined as the gulf between humanity and God. Jesus, by drawing sinners into fellowship with himself, overcomes that gulf. Note that in the parable, the gulf between father and sons also occurred at the house. There is an estrangement with the older son who stayed at home, and while still at home, the younger son asked for his inheritance, which, in essence is saying, "I wish you were dead." Also, note that the younger son's problems were partly caused by his own misdeeds -- wasting his money, and by forces beyond his control -- a severe famine.

A couple of conclusions: Jesus, by declaring this man forgiven, announces that the gulf between him and God has been bridged -- a gulf which others were certain existed because of his physical deformities. The fact that he is declared forgiven while he remains paralyzed indicates that his relationship with God is not dependent upon his health or illness. Jesus, by forgiving first, without any healing, is attacking the common belief that sin caused his paralysis. (In a similar way, Jesus' comments to the rich man about eternal life, attacks the common belief that having wealth is a sign of God's blessings.) Jesus' words and actions undermine the common religious thinking of his day. That is, that the paralyzed man was separated from God by sin. He had missed the mark of being a physically whole person. However, those two truths are not necessarily related. His relationship with God, through Jesus, is restored, without physical healing.

Technically, Jesus does not forgive the paralytic. The verb is passive, "Your sins are forgiven." Presumably it is a divine passive. That is, the one doing the forgiving is God. Jesus just announces it.

THE CONTROVERSY vv. 6-9

Scribes have been mentioned once before in Mark. In 1:22 the people are astounded at Jesus' teaching, because "he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes." Already a contrast has been established between Jesus and the scribes.

On one hand, their complaint against Jesus is unfounded. As I noted above, Jesus did not forgive sins, but only announced that his sins were forgiven. Jesus is not assuming God's power to forgive sins -- at least not yet.

The verb dialogizomai occurs three times in this section (v. 6 "questioning" and twice in v. 8 "discussing these questions" and "raise such questions"). It is a word that implies careful and thorough thoughts or reasoning. "Pondering" is a word that comes to mind to express the idea of "careful reasoning in one's heart".

What they ponder is correct: No one is able to forgive sins except God alone.

However, my guess is that they were pondering whether or not Jesus could announce God's forgiveness -- a job generally limited to the temple priests. This is similar, I think, to the controversy Martin Luther raised when he preached that forgiveness is free and could be declared by anyone within the priesthood of believers. It did not have to be done by the Church (or for a fee) or even by a priest. Jesus, by declaring this man forgiven, was undermining the authority of the priests and the temple.

A second pondering is whether or not God would forgive such a person as this paralyzed man. The issue is whom will God forgive and under what conditions. In their minds, God would not forgive this paralyzed man.

I think that both of these issues are behind the charge of blasphemy. Who is this Jesus who declares God's forgiveness? He doesn't have the right credentials to be doing this. How can he announce God's forgiveness to such an obvious sinner as this paralyzed man? In their minds, Jesus is not acting in a godly way.

Throughout the opening chapters, there is the question of Jesus' authority. In chapter 1, his authority is established, but not challenged. As it grows in chapter 2, so does the opposition that will climax with the Pharisees and Herodians conspiring on how to destroy Jesus in 3:6 -- the conclusion of this section.

The scribes do not ask Jesus their question, but keep it among themselves. (Does that ever happen in congregations?) Jesus knows what they are "pondering". Just as he apparently knew the sins of the paralytic he also knows the hearts of the scribes. (He will also know the "ponderings" of his disciples in 8:16, 17.) He confronts it with a question: "Which is easier?"

The word for "easier" is the comparative of eukopos. This word implies "easy work or toil" (eu+kopos). The comparative would refer to work that is easier to do or that involves fewer troubles or toils. With these definitions, there can be different answers to Jesus' question.

For Jesus, saying "Your sins are forgiven" or saying "Get up and take your mat and walk" are equally easy to speak. One doesn't involve more work for him than the other. However, the result of healing the man would be much more obvious than declaring him forgiven.

It could be argued that Jesus healing the man would bring fewer troubles to him than declaring him forgiven. His words about forgiveness are what started the controversy. Up to this point, there had been no troubles with the religious authorities concerning any of Jesus' healings. It might be argued, that Jesus, knowing that it will get him into trouble, pronounces this man forgiven; when it would have been easier for him just to heal him. In a similar way, Jesus' path to the cross will not be the easier way, but the more troublesome and painful way. How often in our congregations do people want to take the simplest and easiest way, rather than a more difficult one, that requires more time and effort by the people -- but a way that will be more effective (or faithful). One example of this that I frequently run into is the reluctance to organize an "every member visit" stewardship campaign. There are many other easier and quicker campaigns, but all of them are less effective. The question "Which is easier" may not have the same answer as "Which is better (or more faithful)". Or those well-meaning members who will hang door-hangers in neighborhoods, but don't really want to actually see or talk to the people in the houses. Or the bumper sticker, "If you love Jesus, tithe. Anybody can honk."

The question might also be interpreted in regards to the paralyzed man. It was less work for him to be carried by others. The healing means that he will now have to carry himself and his mat. Just being forgiven would mean less work for the paralytic, but he'd still be confined to the mat. Sometimes being able to do more work is what is desired.

THE HEALING vv. 10-12

Verse 10a is being interpreted by recent commentaries as a parenthetical phrase inserted by Mark. Mark does this in other instances. The most obvious is in 13:14 where he inserts, "Let the reader understand." That phrase is clearly addressed to the readers (and hearers) and is not part of the narrative. Similarly, the phrase: "So that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins" may be addressed to the reader/hearers and not part of the narrative. That is, the "you" in the phrase refers to the contemporary readers and hearers, not the questioning scribes.

However, even though Witherington (The Gospel of Mark) agrees that it is a statement by Mark, he points out that it is an unusual statement. The title Son of Man was not something that was used in the early church, especially those in Gentile areas. The phrase is not used by Paul.

I would argue that one of Mark's themes is to counter a "Son of God," that is a Greek "Divine Man" understanding of Jesus, by emphasizing his humanness through the phrase "Son of Man." I think that Mark could have intentionally inserted it.

The phrase "son of man" may hearken back to the eschatological figure in Daniel 7:13 -- the "one like a son of man" who is coming with the clouds. Or, it could be a stylistic way of saying, "this human being" (the typical meaning of the phrase, "son of man"). "This human being" who is on earth, has the power and authority of God who is up in heaven. Jesus can and does bridge the gulf created by our sin -- except that he does it with the wrong people, as he does again in the following stories with Levi and many other the tax collectors and sinners (Mark 2:13-22).

Edwards (The Gospel According to Mark) argues that "Son of man" in our passage depicts Jesus' authority to forgive sins, and thus alludes to the "son of man" in Daniel 7:13-14 who likewise is empowered with God's authority (p. 80).

Jesus commands the paralytic to rise up, take his mat and go home. Had he been living "at home," before? Was he on the streets begging? The word for "home," (oikos) can also refer to "family". Jesus restores him to his family. I wonder if there is an intended connection between oikos in v. 11 and its use in v. 1. Jesus had been unable to be at home for some days because of circumstances beyond his control, but then he does return there. Perhaps this man had not been able to be part of his household because of his paralysis -- something beyond his control. Now he is able to return home. As I have mentioned in previous notes, anthropologists talk about healing illnesses as a restoration to social wholeness as something distinct from curing the individual's disease.

Three times in our text a similar three part actions are mentioned in regards to the paralytic.

The third part changes each time. Perhaps lending a bit of a surprise to the hearers. That is, after hearing, "rise up, take your mat and walk" the first time. The hearers may expect the same sequence the second time, but Jesus changes it. The phrase: "Go to your home," becomes a surprise and an addition to the miracle -- the restoration of relationships. Then the hearers might expect the fulfillment of the command with "he got up, took his mat, and went home." The change to "went out before them all" becomes a bit of a surprise. He becomes a witness to the power and authority of Jesus to forgive sins and to restore wholeness to body and relationships.

Could he have stayed on the mat -- even after he was healed? To return to what he once was? How important is it for us to respond to Christ's commands through actions -- (1) change our relationship with the people around us and (2) are witnesses to the world about our belief in the power of Jesus Christ?

Why are the people "ecstatic" (existemi) and glorifying God? (This is the only occurrence in Mark of the verb "to glorify".) Literally, to "stand outside one's self" (existemi) is a frequent response in Mark -- more than in the other gospels. (1 in Mt; 4 in Mk; 3 in Lk; 0 in Jn). It is the reaction of the crowds when Jesus raised the daughter of the synagogue leader (5:42) and the reaction of Jesus' disciples when they see him walking on the sea and he calms the storm (6:51). It is also a perception that people had of Jesus "he has gone out of his mind" (3:21).

It is a word that expresses something that goes beyond our normal understanding or comprehension. An English idiom might be "It blows my mind."

What in the story produced the "mind-blowing" event? Certainly the witness of the healing was a "mind-blowing" event, but could also the fact that "this human being" shows that he has the authority to forgive sins on earth? Twice before crowds have had similar reactions to Jesus' authority. They are amazed (ekplessomai) at his teaching, because he taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes (1:22). They are amazed (thambeomai) at his teaching with authority -- that he commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him (1:27).

There is an expanding arena of Jesus' authority: in his teaching; over unclean spirits; and now over sin and disease. Each time it produces some kind of amazement among the people -- a reaction that will continue throughout Mark. Jesus continually surprises the people all the way until the empty tomb.

I wonder how many people are still amazed by Jesus? surprised by Jesus? Have we removed all the mysteriousness from the Messiah so that we are no longer "blown out of our minds" by what he does?

Don Juel has a commentary on Mark that he calls, A Master of Surprise. We should expect to be surprised by Jesus in this gospel. (If we aren't, perhaps we aren't reading it carefully enough.)

Mark Allan Powell (Loving Jesus) says even more about being surprised by Jesus:

Many of us talk about meeting Jesus or knowing Christ. Some of us say that Jesus lives in our hearts. Others speak of eating his body and drinking his blood. Such language is always inadequate, but one thing that we all seem to be saying is that we experience Jesus Christ as real -- indeed, as a reality capable of surprising us. I've learned a lot of doctrines in my time, but none that surprise me. I've had to figure out what I believe about any number of things -- that that's what happens -- I figure out what I believe, and then I've got it down. My own beliefs can never surprise me. Reality surprises me, though, and my relationship with Jesus Christ -- my experience of his presence -- has often been characterized by an element of surprise.

Recognizing the presence of Jesus means experiencing Christianity as a relationship with a spiritual reality capable of surprising us. It takes us beyond appreciation for Jesus as a historical figure and beyond confession of doctrinal propositions regarding him. It takes seriously the central claim of Christianity, that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, living still as 'the firstborn of a new creation," enjoying already the life in which we shall all participate. [pp. 53-4]

Jesus performed the healing miracle so that "you might know" (oida). For the most part, in this gospel, the people -- especially disciples -- do not know.

In contrast to these "not knowing" texts, the unclean spirit knows that Jesus is the "Holy One of God" (1:24). Demons also know him (1:34). However, what these spirits and demons know, Jesus does not want spread to the world. He commands them to be silent.

What Jesus wants the world to know is that he has the authority to forgive sins on earth. We may be as ignorant as those disciples. There is much about God, Jesus, Christianity, the second coming, etc. that we don't know. What we are to know is that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins on earth. He bridges the gulf between God and us.

A PARABOLIC APPROACH

How many of our congregations are "paralyzed"? Unable to move? Stagnant? Stuck? What keeps them that way? What would it take for them to know and believe that the power and authority of God is in their midst? What is the mat that they live on? their comfortable place to stay? that carries them? that they think they need? What would it take for them to get off the mat and carry it? What would it take for them to be witnesses to the world about the power and authority of Jesus Christ to forgive sins and to give new life?

Are there some "movers" in the congregation? People who are persistent in their beliefs and actions about what could be? Could some of their actions be destructive to others (like to the home-owner who now has a hole in his roof; like to Jesus' whose class was rudely interrupted by dirt falling from the ceiling; like to the scribes whose understanding of the ways of God were thrown out of whack by Jesus' words and actions)?

Who are we in the story? Who is our congregation in the story? Who would we like to be in the story?


Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901
e-mail: brian.stoffregen@gmail.com