(Sermon from May 2002)
On the 4th Sunday after Pascha the Orthodox celebrate the Sunday of The Paralytic, commemorating the miracle which Jesus did one Sabbath Day as described in John 5:1-15. Though a wondrous healing miracle takes place – a paralyzed man is made to walk – the discussion ends up focusing on whether or not it is proper for the healed paralytic to carry his bed on the Sabbath day.
Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked. Now that day was the sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who was cured, “It is the sabbath, it is not lawful for you to carry your pallet.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me said to me, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk.'” (John 15:8-11)
First, we should note that the Torah in no uncertain terms indicates that absolutely NO work is to be done on the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:12-14). And in Exodus 31:12-17,35:2-3, twice mentioned is the penalty for doing ANY work on the Sabbath: death! Violating the Sabbath is listed as a capital offense, and so observant Jews should be upset when they see someone carrying their bed on the Sabbath as the healed paralytic was doing in John 15.
However, we can also note in the Scriptures that the death penalty for working on the Sabbath must not have been all that common for in Numbers 15:32-36 a man is caught gathering fire wood on the Sabbath but there is uncertainty as to what should be done about it. We are not told whether the doubt is about exactly what one has to do to be considered in violation of the Torah, if it is a matter of intention or willful disobedience rather than ignorance, or whether some “work” might be considered necessary or a disagreement about what constitutes work. In the end the man is executed, so the law of Exodus is carried out.
The Prophet Jeremiah (17:19-22) specifically forbids carrying burdens , carrying burdens nears the gates of Jerusalem or carrying household items out of one’s house. The Paralytic would have been guilty of all three of these infractions. In Jeremiah the warned punishment is some terrible conflagration of the city. In Nehemiah 13:19 guards are even posted by the city gates specifically to stop anyone from carrying burdens on the Sabbath.
In the Jewish Mishnah (developed by the rabbis in the first two centuries after the time of Jesus), there are listed 39 works forbidden on the Sabbath and it is forbidden to carry a bed, unless a sick person is on it and it is being used to transport the sick person. The rabbis did allow necessary works of mercy on the Sabbath.
So it is pretty hard to criticize the Jewish leaders for questioning the paralyzed man for violating the Sabbath – he was in fact committing a serious violation of a well established rule. They seemed to be upset here that a man who waited 38 years to be healed, certainly could have waited one more day to move his bed.
So what is John’s point in relating His Gospel lesson? It clearly is that what Jesus had done – healing a paralyzed man – should have been seen as the sign of God’s coming Kingdom. In their zeal to follow the details of the Torah, they had lost sight that this world was not God’s kingdom, and that there would be signs of the coming Kingdom which they should also have been able to recognize. As Jesus Himself claimed, He is Lord of the Sabbath. His presence (which is also that of God’s Kingdom) is more important than strict adherence to the Torah.
It is also possible that John is taking a swipe at legalistic thinking: while it is OK for people to carry a paralyzed man on a bed on the Sabbath as an act of mercy, legalism says it is not OK for that same man who has experienced a greater act of mercy – God healing him – to carry his own bed as a sign of what God had done for him! John certainly could have been criticizing hyper-Orthodox Pharisaic legalism.
And in the Gospel lesson, the cured paralytic says, “the man who healed me” (the man who brought the Kingdom of God into my life), while his antagonists completely ignore the healing and speak only of the man who said “take up your pallet” on the Sabbath (the man who broke the law). The Torah which was to reveal God’s Kingdom became only that which binded the eyes of the people shut so they could not see the Kingdom, they only could fear the judgment.
Isaiah the Prophet had foretold that in the day of the Messiah the blind would see and the deaf would hear (Isaiah 29:18-19, Isaiah 35:5-6). So all the religious leaders saw was someone violating the Sabbath law, they failed to see that was happening was in fulfillment of the promise and the prophecy concerning God’s coming Messianic Kingdom.
Total adherence to any religious laws or tradition can help conform a people to doing God’s will rather than following their own ways, but it can also bind their eyes shut from seeing what new things God was doing. That is what John is telling us in the Gospel.
“You have heard; now see all this; and will you not declare it? From this time forth I make you hear new things, hidden things which you have not known. They are created now, not long ago; before today you have never heard of them, lest you should say, ‘Behold, I knew them.’ You have never heard, you have never known, from of old your ear has not been opened.” (Isaiah 48:6-8)