The movie Fourth Of July tells the true story of Ron Kovic played by Tom Cruise. Kovic is a patriotic, All-American small town athlete who surprises his family by enlisting with the Marines to fight in the Vietnam War. However, once he is in Viet Nam the glory of war and heroism fades quickly. His enthusiasm turns to horror and confusion when he accidentally kills one of his own men in a firefight. Later, he is paralyzed from the chest down from a bullet wound. When he returns home, he is admitted into a veteran’s hospital which turns out to be a nightmarish experience. He becomes depressed and increasingly disillusioned, which leads him into a downward spiral and ultimately leaves him drunk and dissolute in Mexico. Eventually, he begins to turn himself around and he pulls his life together — which is complicated by the fact that he is still paralyzed.
I cannot imagine what it would be like to be paralyzed. Christian artist and author, Joni Earikson Tada, who is paralyzed from the neck down, tells of what it is like to have to have someone have to get you out of bed, brush your teeth, wipe you, bathe you, and feed you. She says that after 30 years of doing this, you would think she would be used to it by now, but she is not. Every morning she prays for God to help her through one more day. The feeling of being totally helpless and dependent on others would be enough to send most of us into deep depression.
But imagine what it would be like before wheelchairs, motorized chairs, rehab, braces, hospitals, special devices, etc. That was the case with the man in our story today — paralyzed with no benefits that we in the modern world have. He was lying beside a pool with other sick people. They were drawn to the pool by a superstitious tale that an angel would come and stir the waters of the pool, and the first one to get in would be healed. This myth promoted the false idea that God plays games with people, or that he treats them on a “first come, first served” basis. The notion was fostered by the fact that the pool was spring fed, and when the spring periodically flowed into the pool, the water in the pool was stirred.
But this man could not get into the pool, even if the myth was true. He can do nothing on his own. All he can do is lay there. He is totally at the mercy of other people. He does not eat unless someone brings him food. He does not drink unless someone brings him water. He does not move unless someone carries him. And he has been this way for thirty-eight years. He watches other people walk and go about with their normal lives, and he is tempted to despair and become bitter.
But his condition is about to change. Jesus sees the man lying there and inquires about him. He learns that this man has been like this for a long time. Jesus turns to him and asks the most important question of his life: “Do you want to be well?” At first, the question seems absurd. Why would he not want to be well? Why would he be lying next to this pool with its rumors of angels and healing if he did not want to get well? But what is interesting in the story is that the man never answers Jesus’ question. He only blames others for not helping him. He complains that no one will put him into the pool, and someone else always beats him to the punch. He is full of discouragement, and self-pity oozes fro m his pores.
Actually, there are a lot of reasons why he might not want to get well. He has learned over the years to be dependent on other people. Other people make his life work, so he does not have to. He has learned the art of begging, and if he were healed he would have to work. He would have to be responsible for his life. He could no longer blame other people. He could no longer get sympathy from other people. There are many people who live by being dependent on other people. They want to be irresponsible and still have someone else make their life work. There are many people who are genuinely in need and find themselves in a bind, but there are some who make it a lifestyle. The question of whether people really want to be well is still relevant today.
But then Jesus asks the man to do something, and his healing is dependent upon whether he will do what Jesus asks. He says to the man, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” Even if the man were not paralyzed, laying on a mat for thirty-eight years would have atrophied his muscles and made it impossible to get up and walk. But the man feels life and strength surging through his formally paralyzed body. He obeys the word of Jesus and picks up his mat and walks. Whether he is thirty-eight years old and has never walked, or he is older and has been paralyzed from an accident for thirty-eight years, we do not know. What we do know is that he is immediately cured. Jesus does not correct his bad theology or his superstitious thinking about angels playing games with people, he simply says to him, “Get up and walk.”
What is amazing is what we do not find in the story. There is no indication of faith on the part of this man. He never asks to be healed, and furthermore, there is no expression of appreciation when he is healed. In other accounts of healing in the New Testament, people express their thanks to Jesus, and even fall at his feet in worship. But there is not a word from this man. No word of gratitude. No worship.
When Jesus healed a leper, the Bible says, “When he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him — and he was a Samaritan” (Luke 17:15-16). When a blind man was healed, it says, “Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God” (Luke 18:43). In one account in the book of Acts, Peter sees a man begging from people in the temple courts who was lame from birth. Here is how the Scripture tells the story: “Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, ‘Look at us!’ So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. Then Peter said, ‘Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’ Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God” (Acts 3:2-8). That’s what we would expect from the paralytic in our story, but there is no gladness, praise for God or expression of thanks recorded whatsoever.
The account tells us that the healing took place on the Sabbath. Now it was against Jewish law to carry anything on the Sabbath, and the man was carrying his mat, so the legalistic religious leaders rebuked him for breaking the Sabbath. The man’s reaction was to blame Jesus. He said, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’” Then they want to know who the man was: “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?” And the Scripture says, “The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there.” Now what is surprising is that the man has made no attempt to follow Jesus or find out who he is. Wouldn’t your reaction be to find the man who healed you? Wouldn’t you want to know who could do something so wonderful for you? After 38 years of paralysis, wouldn’t you want to thank him?
But it is Jesus who has to come back to him. Jesus found him and said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” Jesus is concerned for the man’s spiritual condition as well as his physical condition. He makes it a point to find him and speak to him about his spiritual need. But still, there are no words of gratefulness. No gladness about how Jesus has helped him. The next words in the story are, “The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.” This man who made no attempt to find Jesus now goes to find the Pharisees to tell on Jesus. He turns him in to the authorities, knowing what would happen. And then the Bible says, “So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted him.”
It almost makes you wonder why Jesus would heal a man like this. There were many lying about the pool with various disabilities and diseases; why didn’t he heal any of them? This was not a place that normal, healthy people came near, out of fear of defiling themselves and disqualifying them for temple worship. But this is a place where Jesus purposely goes. It is an amazing act of grace on the part of Jesus. It is interesting that the pool is named Bethesda: “House of Mercy.” He heals him knowing what kind of person he is. He heals him in spite of the fact that he will get into trouble for this. In fact, the Bible says that the Pharisees tried all the harder to kill him (5:18).
But this is not just the story of a single paralytic in Bible times, this is the story of all of us. We are the paralyzed one, dead in our trespasses and sins, paralyzed and in bondage by our own rebellion. Jesus has come to us and forgive and heal us. And what is our reaction? Are we truly grateful? Do we seek Jesus out and follow him? Do we fall at his feet and worship? Do we live with grateful hearts? All of us have been healed. A simple cold could take us out if it were not for God healing us. Some of us have even had more serious illnesses from which we have recovered. God healed you. All of us have been affected by the disease of sin. All of us were helpless in our lost spiritual condition. But Jesus has come with unexpected and undeserved mercy, grace and favor, forgiving and healing us.
The question is whether we will take responsibility for our lives and live for Christ in gratefulness, faithfulness and joy. I’ll tell you what I’m like. I get impatient waiting in line at a “fast food” restaurant, while people in other parts of the world have nothing to eat. I get aggravated with my computer, when other people live on less in one year than the cost of my computer. I get upset when I have to make another home repair, even though there are others have no home. I see red when I look at the price of gas, and yet others have to walk everywhere they go and carry cargo on their backs. I complain when a spot in my grass is turning brown, when in other parts of the world people have endured years of famine. I take heat, air-conditioning, and running water for granted, while other people live under a piece of tin. I express displeasure about the food in an expensive restaurant, when there are others will never in their lives enjoy a single meal like the one I have in front of me. I gripe about my aches and pains, while others are wrestling with life-threatening illnesses. I get frustrated with slow drivers, when others cannot walk. One of the prayers in the liturgy of the church says, “Most merciful God we confess that we have sinned against you and our neighbor. We have taken great benefits with little thanks and we have been more ready to insist upon our rights than to see the needs of others. Have mercy and forgive us, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Andrew Carnegie, the multimillionaire, left $1 million to one of his relatives, who in return actually cursed Carnegie, because he had left $365 million to public charities and had cut him off with just one measly million. It is sort of like the young boy who was walking down the street with his mother. They met a neighbor on the street, returning home with a bag of groceries. The neighbor gave the boy an orange, and the mother said to her son: “And what do you say to the nice man?” Looking at the man, he held out the orange and said: “Peel it!” But the boy is no different from us who take great benefits from God with little thanks.
The good news is that Jesus comes to us with mercy and grace and does not see as we are, but what we could be. He blesses us and is gracious toward us — when we recognize his goodness and when we do not. The Bible says, “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:10-14).
Rodney J. Buchanan
Amity United Methodist Church
November 18, 2012