John V: 1-18
Until the 19th century, there was no evidence outside of St. John’s Gospel for the existence of the Pool of Bethesda, so some argued that the gospel was written later, probably by someone without first-hand knowledge of the city of Jerusalem, and that the ‘pool’ had only a metaphorical, rather than historical, significance. However, at the end of the 19th century, archaeologists discovered the remains of a pool fitting the description in John’s Gospel. Its proximity to the Temple has made some scholars conclude that it was a mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, whilst the discovery of many pagan votive offerings suggest that in Roman times, it was used by the pagans to honour Asclepius, the god of healing.
The paralytic man, who had been coming to the pool for an incredible thirty-eight years, spoke of the tradition that once a year the waters were agitated by an angel, and the necessity of being the first person lowered into the pool after this visitation. As he had no one to assist him, he remained unhealed. Bearing this in mind the Lord’s question, “Do you want to be healed?” might seem to be rather foolish and indeed the patristic interpretation of it reveals a variety of interpretations.
The fourth century bishop, Amphilochius of Iconium, interprets it as demonstrating our Lord’s modesty saying, “He did not want to make himself appear someone great by making an announcement, as it were, of his miracles.” St. John Chrysostom views the paralytic as one whose heart has been crushed through extended illness, so that he does not respond angrily to the question, but answers gently and with great mildness, relating all his circumstances, asking for nothing further, as though he was speaking to a physician and merely wanted to tell the story of his sufferings. “Perhaps he hoped that Christ might be of some use to him in putting him into the water and hoped to stir up some sympathy with his words.” Saint Cyril the Great, on the other hand, sees this as part of the “Great goodness of Christ in that he does not wait for the entreaties from the sick but anticipates their response with his own lovingkindness. See how he runs to the one who is lying down and how compassionate he is to one who was sick with no one to comfort him.” He also suggests that “the inquiry as to whether he would like to be relieved from his infirmity was not that of one saying out of ignorance what was obvious, but of one stirring up an increased desire and diligent entreaty. The question as to whether he wanted to obtain what he longed for is huge. It has the kind of force and expression that conveys that Jesus has the power to give and is now ready to do so, only waiting for the request of the one who will receive this grace.”
The paralytic may not have known whom he had encountered but, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that this was an encounter with God. It may not have had the grandeur of Moses speaking face-to-face with God in the burning Bush, but we know that all those who encountered the Saviour were changed. Whether it was Simon Peter being called from his fishing, with a lifetime of apostolic ministry ahead of him; the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, called to sit as judge of his creator; or the repentant thief on the cross, with only minutes to live: yet their lives were irreparably changed.
In the light of the Saviour’s penetrating gaze, where our human condition of sin and alienation from God – our spiritual sickness – as well as our individual faults, are revealed, then the question “Do you want to be healed?” is actually very appropriate. Being healed changes everything. Although the Lord forgives and heals freely, there is always a cost. Are we willing to pay that cost? Are we willing for the change that it brings ? The Book of Hebrews tells us that, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (X: 31). Yet strange as it might appear, there are some people who do not want to be healed. Their ailments have come to define them. They do not want to be helped out of their weakness or can’t be bothered to make the effort. They have become used to thriving on the sympathy and pity of others. Too often they shrink from assuming responsibility for their own lives. It is a tragic truth, but there are people who will openly turn their backs on the deliverance offered them, all because of the responsibility that will come with it. They fear they won’t be able to handle the changes or the responsibilities that will become a regular part of their lives if they accept healing. What is true of physical, mental and emotional maladies is even more the case with spiritual sickness.
The Lord’s response in this case is very direct. “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” St Augustine suggests that the word “Rise” was the word of healing, because we are told that at once he was healed; whilst St. Ephraim the Syrian points out that the command to carry his bed was to demonstrate the fullness and instantaneousness of his healing, not like the sick who come back to health gradually.
Unlike some of the other healings performed by our Lord, the healed paralytic is not brought to faith and, indeed, has no idea who it is who has healed him. Indeed, when challenged by the Pharisees for carrying his bed on the Sabbath he passes the responsibility to Jesus, which might at first appear as betrayal of his benefactor, but as Chrysostom says, is a bold confession of his cure. When our Lord later meets him in the Temple, he is told, “See, you are well ! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.” We should not use this text to imply that all illness is the result of sin. In healing others the Lord often makes no mention of sins at all and Chrysostom suggests that this may be a specific matter addressed to this man, or the Lord may have admonished him, knowing his great patience of mind, anticipating that he would be an admonition, keeping him healthy both by the benefit of the healing and the fear of future ills, for he knew what sins he had formally committed.
The Church in her wisdom has chosen accounts of physical healing, not merely to reveal the glory of God and the compassion of the Lord but also to remind us of our spiritual sicknesses and lead us to review our lives, turn to God in repentance and seek His healing grace. There is a charge in the Byzantine Rite of Confession, where the priest standing beside the Penitent, and pointing to the ikon of the Saviour, says: “Behold, my child, Christ standeth here invisibly and receiveth thy confession: wherefore, be not ashamed, neither be afraid, and conceal thou nothing from me; but tell me without hesitation all things which thou hast done; and so shalt thou have pardon from our Lord Jesus Christ. Lo, His Holy Image is before us: and I am but a witness, bearing testimony before him of all things which thou hast to say to me. But if thou shalt conceal anything from me, thou shalt have the greater sin. Take heed therefore, lest, having come to a physician, thou depart unhealed.”
May this holy season, in which through prayer and repentance, we seek an encounter with the living God, bring us closer to our Saviour Jesus Christ, the Healer and Great Physician of our souls. Amen.0000