The paralytic at the pool of Bethesda- a question that draws circles.
Updated: Jun 18
"After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep gate a pool, which in Hebrew is called Bethesda. There are five halls there; 3-4 in them lay many sick, blind, lame, emaciated. 5 Now there was a man there who had been sick for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and heard that he had been sick so long, he said to him, "Do you want to get well? 7 The sick man answered him, Lord, I have no man to bring me into the pool when the waters move; but if I go in, another goes in before me. 8 Jesus saith unto him, Arise, take up thy bed, and go. 9 And immediately the man was healed, and took up his bed, and went. Now it was the Sabbath that day. 10 Then said the Jews unto him that was healed, This day is the sabbath day; it is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed. 11 But he answered them: He that made me whole said unto me, Take up thy bed, and walk. 12 And they asked him, Who is this man that said unto thee: Take up thy bed and walk? 13 But he that was healed knew not who it was: for Jesus was departed, seeing there was so much people in the place. 14 After this Jesus found him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing befall thee. 15 The man went and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. 16 Therefore the Jews persecuted Jesus, because he had done this on the Sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them: My Father works until this day, and I also work. 18 Therefore the Jews sought even more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was his Father, and made himself equal with God." (John 5:1 ff)
My dear friends, dear women of God,
a while ago I was desperately wrestling with a term paper in counseling.
The question was a simple one, yet terribly one-dimensional: "What can we learn from Jesus' questions for pastoral care?"
I thought of Jesus and his greatness, his possibilities of release from all captivity, his authority and invasive power, and a little sarcastically I threw up my pen in exasperation, "Nothing. These are not simple "open" "closed" "solution-oriented" questions. They are a double-edged sword of truth, grace and acceptance. They are, spoken by Jesus, both question and answer. HE has the power to change lives in seconds. We- are poking in the dark, looking for answers, and the right question at the right time only He can ask. Until today."
Be it that I just think too complicated, too thoroughly and sometimes too much, be it that Jesus wanted to show me something- I capitulated- and instead of finishing this paper, it left me in speechless awe and admiration.
What had happened?
I had asked myself a simple question, a question we pass over all too quickly: What was it like to have Jesus of Nazareth, Messiah, Son of the Most High, of the House of David, standing before you in persona? What was it like when he chose an individual, addressed him, in the midst of hundreds of the physically and spiritually maimed in a place where, as John Eldredge puts it most appropriately, a desperate lottery was going on*? Sometimes, when, one did not know exactly, an angel touched the waters of the pond, and the first to slip in was healed. What a small chance! And yet, they gathered there at the Pool of Bethesda. All those who desperately hoped for healing, and likewise all those who had long since found out that it was a lucrative place to survive... as beggars.
Why was that?
Well, being a beggar was not a disgrace in the Middle East to begin with. Beggars served an extremely important function for those who believed in works: they provided an opportunity to practice mercy publicly and to be richly praised for it. It was not at all frowned upon to secure one's livelihood in this way, beggars fulfilled a necessary, social function - and were also seen as such.
The only condition was that they were actually physically disabled - blind, paralyzed, crippled. Their call was traditionally: "Have mercy on me!" And this sentence- we often encounter in the Bible. **
There are different traditions of beggars.
Whether it was telling their life story while being as entertaining as possible (Western) or praising those who gave them money to the skies as the "most generous, God-fearing and merciful honorary citizens (Middle East)-there was always a quid pro quo. Jesus admonishes his listeners not in vain that alms should be given in secret- and not to be praised to heaven by the beggar for his own righteousness. (Mt 6,3) It is not so much a question of morality as of the motive, the attitude of the heart of the giver, and what he hoped to get out of it.
38 years, then, the paralytic lies by the pool of Bethesda, waiting for "the angel of the Lord to touch the water."
By his own strength, we read, he never manages to reach the water, and if he does, someone else is faster than him. Vain hope, then. Vain hope for the sixpence in the lottery, in fact brought by a lottery angel instead of a lottery fairy.
He has settled down in his life, which was probably not always like this.
We do not read that he was paralyzed from birth. So why is he paralyzed? A failed stoning? A flogging that crippled him? Has he been bearing the marks of his transgression for 38 years? It's quite conceivable. He says he has no one to carry him to the pond. No one helps him, he is on his own - socially not accepted. Other beggars - they were put down on the steps of temples and brought back home in the evening. They had families. He apparently does not.
Does he still have hope for healing? After such failure? How many times in the years did he crawl to the pond, laboriously crawling ahead, while others, blind, one-armed, were just mercilessly faster, trampling him aside, running over him as if he were a road? How desperate was he, and what about all the long times in between? At some point it becomes everyday life, and the condition something in which one settles, from which there is no way out- and one forgets that it was once different- the other, health like a distant dream. One resigns.
First of all, it is not unusual that Jesus went to the Pool of Bethesda.
It was a public place of infirmity, and I think many rabbis chose that place to be seen in their charity. "Bless you, Rabbi, you who are so generous! May God's blessings be upon you, righteous man, who see the poor and do not pass him by! May God bless you and your house, with happiness and prosperity, for such generosity never met me! You are the most just of the just!"
But Jesus is not a rabbi.
What is it like when Jesus asks a question?
When he stands in front of you, and you know you've heard about it, you notice the authority that comes from him? What does he want? How restless does the soul become when facing him? What is it like when Jesus recognizes the heart and knows who you are? What a feeling it must be to be seen, suddenly, by the one who healed some, called some, and obviously had the authority to change one's whole life with one word? What is the radiance of a man in whom all spiritual gifts are given at once, not just one? Who is completely filled with the Holy Spirit-who is completely authorized and who asks one question:
"Do you want to get healthy?"
What is it like when in seconds one option shakes the whole soul?
We tend to think that this question was rhetorical.
But I deeply believe it was not.
The question of whether to be healthy, it raises other questions:
Questions of personal responsibility.
What will he live on in the future, the beggar? Is he ready to take care of himself - as a full member of society? In an honest way- in a righteous way- or does he decide against freedom and for dependence, because "yes it works"?
To what extent, if in the case of being marked by sin, God offers a forgiveness that is not expected. What had he done, the paralytic, to be so crippled? Adultery? Theft? Violence? Blasphemy? Can he accept forgiveness? Or does he condemn himself because he cannot forgive himself? Does he manage to totally capitulate to Jesus, to admit that he can't get anywhere on his own?
Grace and mercy. There he is, the Son of God, the Messiah, the Lord, offering something from the highest hand that never seemed possible-a new beginning. Reset. The traces of the old give way, the new comes. A yes, and it will happen. And with it a new commitment to never again betray the one who heals.
Turning away from misbelief.
He lies by the pool of Bethesda, and puts his trust in the mysterious healing power of an angel. Angel faith was widespread in Jesus' time - there was an angel for everything. So he puts his trust in the unpredictable angel of the Pool of Bethesda instead of going to God. He wants healing- but does he see that he needs forgiveness?
Paralyzed inside and out.
Years in such a state- they paralyze, they reduce, they freeze the inside. At some point, one no longer notices how much one has come to terms with "it's just the way it is. Yes, it is a burden. Yes, it is not nice. But "that's just the way it is, that's just the way it is, that's just the way it is."
It is significant what the paralyzed man answers:
"Lord, I have no man to take me into the pool when the water moves; but if I go there, another goes in before me."
Lord, not Rabbi. He knows who is in front of him. "I have no man to bring me into the pool". There is no one who cares about me any longer, I screwed up, I am isolated and far out of any society. But when I get there, someone else gets in before me. It is useless what I hope for here, and by my own strength I do not find healing. I cannot heal myself. I am weak, I am helpless, I am alone- Lord".
His answer is an admission of his own failure. His weakness. And the pleading, sad hope of one who knows and understands that the one who stands before him holds all authority.
Jesus gives him three commands, "Get up, take up your bed and go!"
Get up. End your self-pity, get up inside and out, take courage. Take your bed. Take what you still have and go. Where to? To the temple. To God. "All is well between you now. Thank him for your healing."
And when Jesus meets him there, he says, " Behold, you have been made well; sin no more, lest something worse happen to you."
The laws were cruel.
The execution of the punishments martial. "Sin no more, lest a worse thing befall thee." "Give them no more cause to deal with you in this way. Take your chance for a life with God."
No, we can't really learn anything from how Jesus asks. We can only marvel at how one word from him brings everything at once: compassion, hope, being seen, redemption, correction, future. And how the forgiveness, the grace, the love of Jesus makes all paralysis fall away from us when we truly accept it as the redemption it is.
May we rise up, take what remains, and bring thanksgiving for our healing.
And may we accept God's forgiveness instead of punishing us so martially that we bear the marks for 38 years. May we meet one another in love.
Sibylle/Daughter of Zion.
Bible. Luther 2017, quoted here from: www.bibleserver.com
* John Eldredge (ed.) Find the Life You Dream of. Why it pays to listen to the voice of the heart, Brunnen Verlag Gießen, 3rd ed. 2008, pp. 51-54.
** Kenneth E. Bailey: Jesus was not a European. Middle Eastern Culture and the Life World of the Gospels, SCM 2018, pp. 208-210.
Praise: "Lord you have my heart- Lenny LeBlanc.