Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Luke 5:12-26

These two accounts of Jesus healing -- first a leper, second a paralytic -- highlight the contrast between Jesus and the cultural practices and authorities of the Jewish religion of the time. In a wider sense, they contrast Jesus over against any human systems and efforts. These contrasts center around issues of will, authority, and perception. And don't miss that in the hinge between the two stories, Luke reminds us that Jesus seeking desolate places was not just a one-time thing, but an important pattern for him.

The question of will dominates the healing of the leper. What is God's will for those who are broken? Jesus clearly states, then acts on the statement, that his will is wholeness. Have you ever wondered whether God has good intentions toward you? Have you ever wondered if he is really the mean kid who picks the wings off flies, and you're now stuck in the windowsill, crawling around wishing you could fly? Jesus says no -- I will that you should be healed, whole, free, flying. (I realize that in this metaphor we are houseflies, but this gets at the power and authority dynamics, so it's probably okay.) God wills your healing, your wholeness, your joy. This is radically different from saying God simply wants you to be happy -- a shallow heresy that dominates so many people's thinking. The joy God desires for you is partnered with strength, and we see this partnership time and time again in Jesus' own life. Strength comes through enduring difficulty (see Romans 5) and God longs for his beloved children to grow strong, whole, and joyful. He will not always pad the sharp corners or prevent the consequences of their choices. Instead he will use adversity and difficulty. He has authority over these things as well.

That is the upshot of the fascinating account of the paralytic brought to Jesus through the roof of a house. There is a lot to say about this story, but a few comments will have to suffice here. First, notice that it is the plethora of religious leaders and teachers crowded around Jesus that prevents the paralytic from gaining access. How often do religious people clump together and prevent the good news of Jesus from being scattered into the world like salt and light are supposed to be scattered? There is an indictment here of formalized religious systems that will build throughout the following stories. (More on this when we talk about wine & wineskins in 5:37-39.)

Not only do the religious leaders impede the man's access to Jesus in a physical sense, but they want to stand in the way of Jesus' pronouncement of forgiveness. Without a doubt some of them would have opposed the healing itself, as we see elsewhere in the gospels. Jesus responds by getting to the heart of the matter -- his own authority to pronounce forgiveness of sins AND his authority to heal the paralytic and make him whole.

The authority to forgive is one that is too often missed. This is an incredibly significant action on Jesus' part, and the Jewish religious leaders understood. Assuming that the paralytic had not met Jesus before, and that he had done nothing directly against Jesus that required forgiveness, Jesus cannot possibly pronounce forgiveness to him. Only the injured party can pronounce forgiveness. The exception, of course, is that God can forgive -- because all sin injures God. So the only way Jesus can say with anything resembling truth, "Your sins are forgiven" is if he in fact is God in some sense, or at the very least speaks with authority directly from God.

At the heart of it, Jesus reveals here the tension that will eventually get him crucified: He stands opposed to the power structures and authority structures by which sinful humanity governs itself. If he is authoritative -- if he is truly the king of the kingdom of God -- then the religious and political leaders have no ultimate claim. At best they have a penultimate claim, exercising very limited authority because God has dispensed it to them in a measured way. (This is in fact a key element of Jesus' conversation with Pontius Pilate in John's gospel.)

The final statement of the crowd -- "We have seen extraordinary things today" -- is telling because we too easily get accustomed to this world's "ordinary." We get accustomed to corrupt rulers and self-important systems that prevent people from really accessing the wholeness God wills for his people. We get accustomed to settling for mediocrity and brokenness in our own lives. The life of the kingdom of God is not for weaklings or cowards, a la "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," who live with delusions and fantasies that help them avoid the realities of their situation. Instead, we are called to see the pain and brokenness inherent in ourselves and in this world, and confidently turn to Jesus because we know both his will and his authority to bring healing, wholeness, joy, and strength.

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