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From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada). Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way". Contact Barry at firstname.lastname@example.org to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson
The Seventh Sunday After Epiphany - Proper 2 - Year B
Isaiah 43:18-25, Psalm 41, 2 Corinthians 1:18-22, Mark 2:1-12
In the heartwarming film Paradise, the story is told of a young boy who is left for the summer with strangers who happen to be friends of his single mother. Billy is cool to the idea of being ‘abandoned’ by his mother, but soon warms up to the idea once he discovers that his new family – Jake and Sue Ann – are really neat people who treat him like their own son.
But something is wrong. It is not long before Billy notices that, as nice as Jake and Sue Ann are to him, they treat one another with a cold civility. There is no expression of affection between them and Jake’s anger toward Sue Ann is barely disguised. Billy just doesn’t get why such attractive, nice people don’t seem to like each other.
Eventually we discover that Jake and Sue Ann have lost a child a few years past from crib death and that Sue Ann has blamed herself ever since. Her penance has been to refuse to allow herself to feel. It has all but killed the relationship with Jake because, refusing to open herself to love, Sue Ann is unable to respond with any kind of reciprocal affection to her husband.
Jake has tried everything a man of his ability could possibly do. He has been patient. He has reassured Sue Ann that he does not blame her for their son’s death. He has given her all the time anyone should need to work through the understandable sense of grief. But, Sue Ann has become stuck. Her guilt has become a self-inflicted wound that she refuses to let heal; and Jake’s frustration and desperation at being unable to help her have turned to deep anger and, eventually, to bitterness.
Sometimes the most massive chains in which we feel bound are the ones we have fashioned for ourselves. What does it take before we can become liberated toward the love that has already forgiven us?
Until I listened to John Shea once talk about this story, I never thought much about the pallet that the paralytic man whom Jesus healed dragged home. Why would a man who had been forced to lie on a pallet for God knows how many years drag it home after him now that he was healed? What is the connection between this continuing reminder of his paralysis and our reluctance to forgive ourselves? I suspect the answer lies at the heart of Mark’s highly artistic and symbolic tale.
You know how it works. Rumour . . . . Word got around. . . . Somebody said . . . "Jesus is in the house." House is one of those code words in Mark’s gospel for church. The church is where Jesus is to be found. In today’s world, where Jesus has become a cultural icon and people find him everywhere, in the gospels he is found within the community that continues his memory. "Jesus is in the house," and word has got around to such an extent that the place is packed. (Every preacher’s fondest dream. Most important question after every Sunday service? "How many?" The place was packed!)
. . . to such an extent that the people who need to get to Jesus can’t. The place is too crowded. It is an interesting image of the church. A place so jammed with onlookers that their rear ends block entrance to all those who need to be there. But, finally, through the persistence of those who care about their friend, a way is found to bring a man who is so paralyzed that only his eyes can move to Jesus.
Then, there are Jesus’ eyes. When he sees the faith that has brought this man to him, he pronounces a word that means life to one and blasphemy to others.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Child, your sins are forgiven."
There are in the house those who resent this word of life.
There have always been in the church those who are more concerned with authority than with love. Their obsession is with who gets to do what. Jesus’ obsession is with human liberation. He will not be thwarted by those who reason but who do not love; and his tactic is abrupt and unexpected. Sin must be forgiven before life can begin again.
Are we punished for the sins we commit? The religious have agonized over such a conundrum for centuries. They still do. Is their some predestined link between sin and suffering? Is one the cause of the other? Is God the one who enforces such penalties? Are the trials and tribulations we experience in this life the karma we have earned for previous sins? Is the paralysis this man must endure his karmuppance? The text does not oblige us.
But Jesus obliges the one who needs him. He sees a child of God in a weakened condition. A wound that was once wounded. He starts with the one who has been wounded so that the wound can heal itself.
If sin alienates us from life, forgiveness restores us. The answer to "Which is easier . . .?" is that they are one and the same. Neither is easier. Neither is harder. Both flow from the Heart of love. In the realm where Jesus lives – which is the freedom of God – forgiveness of sins is the power to walk.
But why the pallet?
It is the most curious part of the whole story. The man is healed. Jesus has overcome that which has paralyzed him. But instead of jubilation, Jesus enjoins him to take up his bed and go home. Why this injunction? Was it to be a sign of his healing? A continuing reminder of what once was to keep him humble and grateful? Are there limitations to what forgiveness can do for us? Is something more needed as well – like a pallet leaning up against the fireplace to remind us of what we once were?
When I was growing up as a good little Protestant, I always wondered about the sacrament of penance that my Catholic friends dutifully performed. "Three Hail Mary’s", "Two Our Father’s" – as a kind of payment for absolution in the confessional. It never made sense to me. Either you were forgiven or you weren’t. What did penance have to do with it? Of course, the local Catholic priest had nothing on my parents who, after catching me in the act of "something I ought not to have done", would say something like, "OK, we’ll let you off this time; but, you can take your little sister to the show with you." Suddenly, the meaning of penance became crystal clear. It’s about learning how to break free of our guilt. It’s not quite as easy as believing in a forgiving God and being sorry.
One of the most powerful depictions of this is in the Hollywood film, The Mission. The Robert De Niro character has killed his brother and has made a living by capturing and selling Indian slaves. He comes to a point where he experiences deep sorrow for the life he has lived and receives his priest’s assurances that God has forgiven him. But he cannot break free of his guilt until he finds the grace to forgive himself.
He devises a penance for himself. He puts all his armour and weapons, reminders of his old life, in a huge net and drags this net through forests, rivers and finally up the steep cliffs of a mountain on his way to the Indians he has once enslaved. It seems to us like a terrible and unnecessary punishment. But, when the Indians see his suffering and resolve, they accept his sorrow and forgive him. Then he forgives himself and cries. Not until then is he free.
Even though God forgives us freely, we must still find the grace to forgive ourselves. Although it probably sounds like heresy to some to say it, there are some things God will not do for us. One of them is finding the perfect penance for a debt that only we can pay back. For the De Niro character, it was demonstrating to those whom he had brutalized how deep was his contrition. To a young man I know who once treated women despicably, it is doing everything he can to raise awareness about the violence that continues to be done toward women. Some women who have seen his sorrow have helped him to forgive himself.
Perhaps, that is all the pallet in this story means. It is a way in which a man who has been forgiven finds his way to acceptance and service to others. It is to be hoped that eventually he found the path which led only to mercy, mercy in himself that only he could give himself.
"The perfect penance is the one that can bring us into the land of mercy with such completeness that it can include even ourselves." – Fr. John Shea
Study and Reflection
Isaiah 43.18-25 – The context of the passage is the situation of freed exiles returning to Palestine. Their world was being reborn in the midst of confusion, uncertainty and anxiety. It was a time of rebirth; but things were very difficult. All the familiar patterns and structures of society and religious life had been destroyed. There were no recognizable landmarks for them to reorganize their lives. But, in the midst of this pain and heartache comes a word – God will stand by them and has forgiven them their sins.
2 Corinthians 1.18-22 – Whether or not Paul was spontaneous and impulsive, he had apparently scheduled various trips to Corinth and later had to unschedule them. The complainers in that troubled and contentious congregation saw it as something to bemoan: proof that Paul was inconsistent and unreliable. Paul responds to the accusation by telling them to stop being so petty and to be concerned about the message he brought to them instead – a message about one who is always reliable.
Mark 2.1-12 – The question to keep in mind about this week’s story is: why did Jesus’ healing ministry engender so much opposition and hostility? The answer lies in the way sin and suffering were understood at the time. The religious system guarded against infection of both the physical and social kind. The two were directly related. Laws were set in place to keep the unclean out and only the observance of a strict regimen proscribed by the priests and scribes would permit one’s re-entry into the community of the living. Jesus once again cuts through such regulations, challenges the status quo and declares by word and action that God’s love is available to anyone.
BEING FORGIVEN IS JUST THE FIRST STEP – Sometimes the knots we tie to our failures are so tight we can barely breathe. We know we have to untie them, but we often don’t know how. Some of us learn to untie them slowly over months and years until we finally forgive ourselves. Sometimes the release comes suddenly from the outside by one who insists on re-claiming us to Love.
HYMN 374 Come and Find the Quiet Centre (Voices United)
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