The student walked into his classroom on the first day of school. He was tentative and nervous; this sort of thing just did not usually go well for him. In nearly every social setting—no matter how hard he tried—he just couldn’t seem to fit in. He’d inevitably say or do something that was apparently against some unwritten rule that no one told him.
Either subtly or plainly (he didn’t know which was more painful), others would place him on the outside, maybe without even realizing it and maybe with the best of intentions. So he tended to keep to himself. But that didn’t help, either. Either he was a weirdo for trying to make friends, or a weirdo for not. With that double-bind in mind, his anxiety was palpable as he crossed the threshold and overheard some classmates not trying hard enough to lower their voices.
“Ah, look who’s in our class! He’s such a retard. Look at how he dresses! Look at how he walks! Hilarious.”
“Ugh. I was hoping not to get him in my class again. He makes me uncomfortable.”
“Don’t they have, like, special classes for people like him? Or special schools? It would be so much better if this was just a place for normal people.”
Now, the young man was indeed on the autism spectrum. But precisely who in this classroom had the disability? What was it that really needed healing?
Luke 5:17-26 is the episode of Jesus and the man living with paralysis. We find this story in the midst of a number of narratives that show Jesus healing not merely physical ailments, but all sorts of brokenness—demon possession, illness, ignorance, hopelessness, isolation. Jesus has come to heal (v. 17; NRSV), and this sickness is wide and deep. Let’s look at how we see multi-dimensional healing in this text.
First, we find that the paralyzed man has faithful friends (v. 20) who take him “to lay him before Jesus” (v. 18), who had been gaining notoriety as a healer, teacher, and wonder-worker. Indeed, they can find no way into the house due to the crowds there to see him (v. 19).
And it is here that we are confronted with a first form of sickness that needs healing. Why is it that the most vulnerable have the most difficulty finding their way to Jesus? Why are there obstacles for this one who is the most in need? What obstructs the pathway to grace that this man needs? What obstructs the pathway to grace that this crowd needs? Yet even these obstructions will not stand, for the faithful bearers of grace go up to the roof so that their friend might encounter and bear it himself; perhaps the grace that the crowd most needs descends from above as, before their eyes, the paralyzed man is laid before Jesus.
Second, when the man is brought by his friends to Jesus to be healed of his paralysis, what does Jesus heal? He says, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you” (v. 20). What’s going on here? Why did Jesus not heal the man’s paralysis? Perhaps because there is a deeper paralysis that needed healing.
In the ancient world, disability was often associated with ritual uncleanliness. At the time of Jesus, the religious authorities regarded the sick or infirm, or those whose bodies were differently-abled, to be suffering from the result of sin, either their own or that of others. So when the paralyzed man’s friends brought him to Jesus, he noticed their faith first; their trust in Jesus was greater than their fear of rubbing up against the perceived sin of their friend.
And while their trust in Jesus was well-placed, they did not get the result they were assumedly looking for, at least not initially. “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” Rather than removing the man’s paralysis, Jesus instead shows the man—and all those around him—that there is no sin causing this man’s paralysis. The man’s sins have been forgiven, and yet he is still paralyzed, which shows that the two are not connected.
And so here we find healing for a second sickness, that which imagines that those whose bodies are different are somehow unclean or distinctively sinful. Perhaps the sins that are being healed are greater than only those of the man, and extend to those who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to receive the grace that Jesus has for them.
A Glimpse of the Kingdom
Third, the scribes and Pharisees from all over Israel (v. 17), who have likely come to see what all the hubbub is about concerning the rabbi from Nazareth (cf. 4:14, 37, 44), say to themselves that Jesus is blaspheming, either because he—not a properly-trained clergyman—has announced God’s forgiveness, or because it did not accompany traditional rites. Jesus did not need to hear to know what they were thinking; they still did not get it. He challenges them, asking: Which is easier to say, “your sins are forgiven you” or “stand up and walk"?
Obviously, the answer is the former, for it has no empirical verifiability; the religious authorities could pronounce forgiveness without it actually being the case, but they could never pronounce physical healing because it would not follow. And so, to show that he does in fact represent God and has come to deal with all sorts of brokenness, Jesus then says the harder thing, “I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home” (v. 24).
Thus a third sickness is healed; Jesus is revealed as the “Son of Man” (v. 24) who has come to heal the breadth and depth of sin. Far from being ritualistically unclean, far from being one to be avoided, the man with paralysis becomes a medium of grace as he helps to show all who Jesus truly is.
Fourth, after Jesus pronounces healing and commands him to stand up, the formerly-paralyzed man “immediately” (v. 25) stands up, holding the mat that had once held him, and goes to his home. He does so with grateful recognition of God’s glory; indeed, amazement and awe fill the crowds who, reflexively, praise God. What has them so excited? The fact that Jesus did something miraculous? Probably. But perhaps there is also evinced an ineluctable joy, one that bubbles up as the Holy Spirit gives those gathered a glimpse of the Kingdom of God. A fourth sickness is healed as all present—the man, his friends, the Pharisees and scribes, and the crowds—see proclaimed before them reality as it is meant to be, and will be someday for all.
Just as the man stands up and walks, so the crowd sees that they, too, will be fully healed of all their brokenness. Just as the man goes home to be re-integrated into a society that has wrongfully shunned him, so the crowd sees that the world, too, will become a place of belongingness for everyone. And just as the one who is paralyzed “gets up” to the glory of God, so the crowd sees the One who will rise up, revealing to all the full glory of God, prefiguring the Kingdom of new life for the cosmos.
A Marginalized Body?
The healing that Jesus brings is holistic in nature, and it goes far beyond whatever physical struggles, vulnerabilities, or “disabilities” that some individuals may have. In fact, while, like all of us, they certainly have struggles, the disabled are often the healthiest ones in our midst, and have merely been disabled by others who marginalize them. Indeed, where else in the Church—and in the world—do we see people placed on the margins because their bodies are different than the majority?
Mike Langford is a teacher, thinker, writer, and speaker who wants to help the Church bring rich theology, good ministry, and deep spirituality into discipleship living. He is an Associate Professor of Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry at Seattle Pacific University and Seminary, and Executive Director of Immerse Youth Discipleship Academy. Mike holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Princeton Theological Seminary and is an ordained Presbyterian pastor. He and his wife, Kelly, live in the Seattle area with their four kids.