The National Catholic Review
Daniel J. Harrington
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (B), Feb. 19, 2006
“Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd, they opened up the roof above him” (Mark 2:4)

In almost all of Jesus’ healing miracles, the person in need of healing displays an attitude of faith in him and his power. In Mark’s account of the healing of the paralyzed man, however, it is the man’s friends who display faith by the extraordinary way they bring their friend to Jesus. They find Jesus in a house in Capernaum. There is a great crowd around and no obvious way to bring their friend to Jesus. So they go up on the roof, open up the roof of the house and lower their friend down to get what they hope will be a healing word and touch from Jesus. They exhibit their remarkably active faith in Jesus by breaking down barriers to reach him.

 

Today’s passage from Mark’s Gospel actually consists of two stories. The first story is a healing narrative, in which Jesus miraculously restores the paralyzed man to health. The second is a debate between Jesus and the scribes about his power to forgive sins. This text is another example of Mark’s practice of intercalation, also known as his “sandwich” technique. The healing story begins, is interrupted by the debate, and then is resumed and concluded. The effect is that the two stories reinforce each other. The point of the intercalation is that Jesus is powerful both in word and in deed.

In the debate Jesus asks the scribes, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk.’” Of course, it is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven.” But there is no empirical proof that what was said actually happened. It is harder to say, “Rise...and walk,” since the effect of these words could be empirically verified or proven false. Through the literary device of the intercalation, the power of Jesus’ word about forgiveness of sins is given greater authority and credibility through his act of healing.

In his words about forgiveness of sins, Jesus breaks down an even more imposing barrier. According to Jewish theology, only God can forgive sins. In today’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah, God says, “It is I, I, who wipe out...your offenses; your sins I remember no more.” Yet in Mark 2, Jesus himself declares, “Your sins are forgiven.” The scribes rightly wonder about this claim and object to it on theological grounds. To them Jesus seems to be taking to himself a prerogative that belongs only to God. And he is! That is the point. As the Son of Man and the Son of God, Jesus breaks down the barrier between God and humankind, and serves as their one perfect mediator.

The theme of breaking down barriers receives even greater depth in the reading from 2 Corinthians when Paul describes how he and other early Christians experienced God in the light of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Their Trinitarian consciousness was not a theological abstraction or a historical curiosity. Rather, they now related to God as their trustworthy and loving parent, to Jesus the Son of God as their brother and to the Holy Spirit as God’s abiding and empowering presence with them and as the first installment toward fullness of life in God’s kingdom.

In describing Jesus’ place in the divine plan of salvation, Paul calls him the yes of God. Imagine the most important and enthusiastic yes you have ever uttered. Then you have some sense of Paul’s point in calling Jesus the yes of God. To name Jesus the yes of God means that in Jesus God has affirmed humankind despite our weakness and sinfulness, that in Jesus God’s promises to his people Israel were being fulfilled and that in Jesus God showed his love for us in the most dramatic and definitive way imaginable.

By way of response to God’s yes in Jesus, Paul suggests that we say “Amen.” At the end of a prayer or a solemn statement, saying the Hebrew word amen means that you believe what was just said and that what was said is worthy of trust. According to Paul, the amen that we say in response to God’s yes in Jesus goes through Christ “to God for glory.” The familiar words yes and amen are vivid expressions of the conviction that in the person of Jesus the barriers between God and humankind have been broken down.

While the owner of the house in Capernaum may not have been happy at what the friends of the paralyzed man did to his roof, it appears that the friends were on to something very important as they tried to break down barriers on the paralyzed man’s behalf. Today’s Scripture texts remind us that through Jesus God is even more eager and effective in breaking down barriers on our behalf.

 

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is professor of New Testament at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass.

Readings: 
Readings: Isa 43:18-19, 21-22, 24-25; Ps 41:2-5, 13-14; 2 Cor 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12
Prayer: 

• Are there barriers in yourself or in your relationships with God and other persons that need to be broken down?

• What theological claims are implied in Jesus’ words, “Your sins are forgiven”? Who is he to say such things?

• Recall the most important and enthusiastic yes you have ever said. What does this memory tell you about the Christian understanding of God and Jesus?