by Laurie Gudim
These stories in which Jesus tells someone who is physically disabled that their sins are forgiven and then, as proof of that, heals them, are distressing. It seems to me that they reinforce in our minds the secret belief that people are somehow responsible for the harm that befalls them.
It saddens me that people who have fallen in harm’s way often have to bear the added burden of being judged. This is true not only for people who have been physically disabled but for those who are impoverished or who have lost their homes. We ask them what they did wrong. Where could they have prevented their plight? What might they do differently now that will bring healing? It seems to me that all those questions stem from pride – the belief that we are so powerful, so effectual, that we really can live lives in which nothing bad happens to us.
I can’t imagine that Christ would be encouraging such hubris. So when he says to the paralyzed man, “your sins are forgiven,” what does he mean?
It is important for us 21st Century U.S. Christians to understand the context. For while he is addressing an individual, Jesus is really talking to a community. The paralytic is an outcast; his culture has made him so. In telling him that his sins are forgiven Jesus restores him to a place of competence within his family and village. He is as good as everybody else. He has meaning; people need to take him seriously and listen to him.
What does it mean to a community when the outcast has a voice to which everyone listens? It means that things change. The person who has been marginalized knows that we are not powerful or effectual in ordering our own lives; she has lived that reality. She deeply understands and can teach us about our basic dependence on God and one another.
It is only when we are in relationship with God that life has any real meaning. We are whole and well not when we are physically able but when we are in a vital, nourishing partnership with the Holy One.