If you were with us on Sunday, you heard the story of the paralytic. In that culture, paralysis rendered you wholly dependent on others for…well, everything. So you can imagine that even family and friends were weary of having to tend to his needs, and would have jumped at hearing that this gifted healer named Jesus was teaching nearby.
But when they got there, they realized they should have called ahead for a reservation. It was a packed house. But in those days, the roof of a house was flat, composed of layers of ceiling tiles that were sturdy enough to walk on, yet could be lifted off without too much effort.
And that’s what they did: they pulled back the tiles to lower this paralyzed man in front of Jesus. You can imagine the room going quiet for a moment, then murmuring in confusion at this bizarre scene. The man’s problems were obvious before he even opened his mouth: to walk again, he’d need the amazing power of Jesus.
But instead, he hears this: “Your sins are forgiven.”
YOUR GREATEST WISH
The man’s greatest wish is met with a perplexing statement about forgiveness. Such a statement is simply not helpful if the man’s greatest need is physical restoration.
If you were there on Sunday, I compared this to going to the doctor with a headache and not expecting him to address the harpoon lodged in your ribs. What good does it do to heal the body but not address the infection of sin that brews inside?
Many people approach Jesus with a list of wishes they expect Him to grant, and often approach religion as a means to a personal end. If I follow Jesus, can I expect my mother to be healed? Will Christianity help me if I choose to make a career move? I struggle with issues of self-esteem – will Christianity make me feel accepted or condemned?
The list could go on, of course, with an endless list of wants or needs. And, to be fair, like the desire to walk again, not all our requests are trivial or selfish. But to each of these questions and needs, Jesus responds in the same way: “Your sins are forgiven.”
“Everybody’s got a hungry heart,” writes Bruce Springsteen, who’s writing some theology without even realizing it.
People want things. People have priorities. But we should never be so foolish as to assume that such desires are universal. The following chart shows the way that priorities have shifted even in the last century. Credit should go to my friend Glenn Lucke for finding the article on Graphic Sociology the following chart comes from.
We assume that there is a set list of things that will make us happy. In all likelihood, these things will make us happy. At least, for now.
The Atlantic Wire featured a recent article which included some provocative statements made by exceedingly wealthy people:
“I feel stuck,” [director of marketing for broker-dealer Euro Pacific Capital Inc. Andrew] Schiff said. “The New York that I wanted to have is still just beyond my reach.” How so? “Paid a lower bonus, he said the $350,000 he earns, enough to put him in the country’s top 1 percent by income, doesn’t cover his family’s private-school tuition, a Kent, Connecticut, summer rental and the upgrade they would like from their 1,200-square- foot Brooklyn duplex.”
“People who don’t have money don’t understand the stress,” said Alan Dlugash, a partner at accounting firm Marks Paneth & Shron LLP in New York who specializes in financial planning for the wealthy. “Could you imagine what it’s like to say I got three kids in private school, I have to think about pulling them out? How do you do that?”
“It’s a disaster,” said Ilana Weinstein, chief executive officer of New York-based search firm IDW Group LLC. “The entire construct of compensation has changed.”
Everybody’s got a hungry heart; the problem is that so few things can satisfy this hunger.
AN INCH AND AN ELL
Many give up on Jesus because they have turned him into a means to an end. Part of this is the fact that “sin” is viewed, at best, as a form of personal trauma, which means Jesus is some sort of therapist. So of course healing someone’s paralysis makes sense because that’s more serious than some past psychological abuse. Of course offering forgiveness of sin is weird when there are more pressing matters to be concerned with.
But the message here is that Jesus could grant your wish, but you’d be just as unhappy and unsettled as before. Jesus is trying to go deeper than that: you don’t just need someone who can heal your heart, but who can rip it from your chest and replace it with what actually works.
And to do that, Jesus had to offer this man something that he could not find even if his physical health was totally restored.
“When I was a child I often had toothache, and I knew that if I went to my mother she would give me something which would deaden the pain for that night and let me get to sleep. But I did not go to my mother—at least, not till the pain became very bad. And the reason I did not go was this. I did not doubt she would give me the aspirin; but I knew she would also do something else. I knew she would take me to the dentist next morning. I could not get what I wanted out of her without getting something more, which I did not want. I wanted immediate relief from pain: but I could not get it without having my teeth set permanently right. And I knew those dentists: I knew they started fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. They would not let sleeping dogs lie, if you gave them an inch they took an ell.
Now, if I may put it that way, Our Lord is like the dentists. If you give Him an inch, He will take an ell. Dozens of people go to Him to be cured of some one particular sin which they are ashamed of…. Well, He will cure it all right: but He will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if once you call Him in, He will give you the full treatment.… ‘Make no mistake,’ He says, ‘if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for.…Whatever suffering it may cost you…whatever it costs Me, I will never rest…until my Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you, as He said He was well pleased with me. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.’” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 201-202)
Jesus is no more interested in granting the man’s immediate wishes than He is in granting ours. Instead, He is interested in getting to the deeper problems of sin, a problem that is far deeper than any physical ailment or childhood scar.
If this man represents the things people expect from religion, tomorrow we will explore what people believe religion expects from them.