Christ is risen! We continue with our celebration of the resurrection of the Lord, still being in the midst of the holy 40 days between Easter and Ascension. This Sunday, however, we do not have one of the resurrection Gospels prescribed, but rather one that offers an important lesson about how to live in the grace of the risen Lord (John 5:1-15). It’s about a bodily healing, which is at the same time a metaphor for spiritual healing. We learn from this Gospel about the responsibility that finding new life in Christ places upon us.
The context for this healing is unique in the Gospels. The sick were gathered around a pool called Bethesda, which means “house of mercy.” This is certainly appropriate for a place of healing. For an angel would come from Heaven from time to time and stir up the waters, and whoever would enter first after this happened would be healed. Here we are still at a time before the universal outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, so healings were few and far between. The advent of the incarnate Son of God put an end to such unusual and sporadic manifestations, as we see from the fact that the paralytic did not need to go into the water but was immediately healed simply by the command of the Lord Jesus.
But this Gospel story is unique in other ways as well. Sometimes Jesus would heal the sick without any dialogue with them, and sometimes He would ask them what they wanted Him to do for them. But here He asks a different question, one that at first glance seems superfluous, yet it is in fact a probing question that goes right to the heart of the matter: “Do you want to be healed?” It’s instructive to note that the man did not answer this simple and direct question, but immediately let loose a barrage of complaints as to why he could not in fact be healed. He’s all by himself, he has no one to help him, someone gets in the water before he does. Jesus, however, didn’t ask him about any of those things. He only asked him if he wanted to be healed.
The man was a hypochondriac. Now a hypochondriac is not merely someone who is not really sick but complains that he is. That’s one type. Another type, like this paralytic, does have some actual maladies but is obsessed with them, spends an inordinate amount of time, thought, energy, or money on them, uses them to get attention from others, uses them as grounds for self-pity. This kind of hypochondriac requires that others love and care for him before he will love and care for others. After all, he’s the one in need of attention. This makes such a person quite self-absorbed, bitter, and unable even to notice—let alone serve—those around him. One gets the impression that they almost prefer to be sick, because they think that relieves them of responsibility and gives them grounds for excuse-making.
Jesus spotted this right away, but realizing that it is quite useless to reason with such a person, and since they were in the “house of mercy” anyway He decided to have mercy on Him. Jesus did something, however, that was for the healing of his soul as well as his body. The very act of healing his paralysis removed all his grounds for complaining, and suddenly the man had to face the demands of living a responsible life. Along with his illness, his basis for self-pity was taken away too!
One might have hoped that he learned his lesson and went away praising and glorifying God, as did so many others whom Jesus healed. But he just went away and ran into the Pharisees who reproached him for carrying the pallet he’d been lying on, since it was a Sabbath. They couldn’t care less that a miracle was worked; they only wanted to know who was going around giving people permission to break the rules.
In addition to physical hypochondriacs there are spiritual hypochondriacs as well. They’re not self-absorbed because of things of the body; they’re self-absorbed with matters of religion and their own narrow, quirky, distorted, or misguided interpretation of them. The result is a spiritual sickness or at least an imbalance. Maybe they pray, but they do not exercise charity; maybe they live by the letter of the law but not by its spirit. The end result is not much different than that of the other kind of hypochondriac: they miss the point of what life is about, of what relationship with God is about, because they live to serve themselves more than to serve others; they are still complainers; they still hold on to their own narrow ideas and opinions and refuse to learn from others.
So Jesus sought him out to give him a final admonition, since the man didn’t seem to be very grateful for the miracle just performed for him. “See, you are well,” said the Lord. “Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.” Here the element of sin is introduced, and the implication is that sin was at the root of the man’s paralysis in the first place. Sin itself in a kind of spiritual paralysis, and sometimes spiritual diseases end up manifesting themselves in the body as well as in the soul or mind. This doesn’t mean that all sickness in individual cases is a direct result of sin, but since we are dealing now with this particular Gospel in which Jesus Himself makes the implication, we can assume that that was the case for this man.
One of the lessons is that healing from God brings with it a responsibility to live as one who has been granted God’s favor and the capacity to live a mature human life. You are well; therefore sin no more. Since the man evidently did not have an open and willing heart, Jesus had to spell out the consequences: “lest something worse befall you.” That’s pretty serious, since what had previously befallen him was 38 years of an incapacitating disability. Perhaps the Lord was referring to an eternity of pain if the man would persist in his sin.
There’s a tradition (perhaps only a legend) that something worse did befall this man. It is said that years later he was hostile to the Christian faith, and when the Mother of God had died and was being carried out for burial, he sought to disrupt the funeral procession. For his efforts he lost both his hands as an angel of the Lord sliced them off with his celestial sword. This is even depicted on some icons of the Dormition of Our Lady.
In any case, we see that the man was still ungrateful and unrepentant, because he immediately went back to the Pharisees and told them that it was Jesus of Nazareth who was the Sabbath-breaker they sought. As the Gospel continues, we learn that it was precisely because of this that Jesus began to be persecuted by certain Jews in high places. This healing is also referred to later in the Gospel (7:21-24), so it must have been a contentious issue for some time.
Jesus’ only comment about all that was, “My Father is working still, and I am working.” There were certain exceptions in the law for breaking the Sabbath, like doing circumcisions (which had to be done on the eighth day after birth), or for priests in general who were on temple duty. Jesus, being Lord of the Sabbath, could make exceptions for Himself, when charity or compassion required it, and He had to answer to no one.
We don’t know what ultimately happened to the handless former paralytic. Maybe the angel’s blade was at last sufficient warning to repent. One may hope so. But for ourselves, we needn’t speculate about such things, for we have to put into practice the lesson of the Gospel.
We have to make sure we are not hypochondriacs, whether physical or spiritual. First, we have to hear the question of the Lord and not dismiss it as simplistic or rhetorical: “Do you want to be healed?” We have to be aware of its implications and requirements, and then answer not with complaints or self-serving excuses, but simply and directly. If we’re ready to live a mature, responsible life of faith and obedience, with the help of God’s grace, then by all means let us say: “Yes, Lord, I want to be healed! And I will give my very best effort to live as one who has been touched by your love and mercy, manifesting love and joy and compassion to others.” But if we are content to live a self-centered life, complaining and grumbling, with self-pity and self-fulfilling prophecies of woe, then let’s be honest and say: “No, Lord, I do not want to be healed. Leave me here outside the gates of the house of mercy and let me have my dark satisfaction in complaining about others and about how badly life has treated me.”
Well, the choice is ours. You see in the case of the paralytic Jesus that gave him every possible opportunity. He healed the man even though he was not properly disposed, and He sought him out to admonish him so that something worse would not happen to him. God is always faultless in what He does for us. He bends over backwards, so to speak, in order to do good for us. He gives us much more than what we deserve. But there comes a time when a response is required of us. This is not because God runs out of patience or blessings. It is because He wants us to be in relationship with Him, and relationships are two-way affairs. The Lord loves us and wants us to love Him in return; He gives us a talent and expects us to multiply it; He forgives our sin, raises us up from our spiritual paralysis and then requires us to live accordingly, because He has already provided the grace to do so.
So let us listen carefully and respond honestly to the Lord’s invitation to healing. Let us be willing to do what it takes, however costly to our fragile egos, to break out of self-absorbed hypochondria, rise from our spiritual sickbeds and start living the life that God has called us to live. We keep saying in our paschal services that through the Resurrection Christ has given us new life. Well, has He or has He not? “The Redeemed should look more redeemed,” said an old foe of Christianity (Nietzsche), but he was right on that point. So let us get up and walk, and not be afraid to step out and live a real Christian life. Look alive out there, for Christ is risen!