Remember the paralytic who’s lowered by his friends into a crowded room early in Mark’s gospel? What sort of paralysis do you think he had? I catch myself imagining him unable to use his legs, but able, barely, to sit up. Or maybe he’s propped up on pillows. I see him descending from the ceiling, sitting on the mat with mock solemnity, playing the magus, enjoying the self-subverting pretense. He can’t keep his composure for long, though, because everybody’s laughing as they always do when this fellow shows up, borne along by his rowdy friends.
Scratch that. Not everybody is laughing. The fellow raises his wine sack to the religious leaders in a wry toast, and hides his grin as he drinks, wine running out both sides of his mouth. He lowers the bag, meeting their eyes with a bold stare, wiping away the excess liquor with aristocratic care.
This self-satire is how he takes his stand in the world without the help of legs.
Then Jesus speaks. Maybe he’s laughing, too. It’s not beyond reckoning that he would enjoy the fellow’s comportment as much as anyone. But around his mirth he utters the best joke of all. “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The place erupts again. Everyone knows this lame fellow’s crudities, his drunkenness, the rumors of wild nights. The religious leaders have long dismissed him to Gehenna.
But in all the tomfoolery, the Pharisees are even less amused than usual. Jesus follows the lame man’s bold and merry stare until he meets their eyes. He’s still smiling, but there’s something gauging in his stare. He’s watching the leaders think their responsible, diligent, upright thoughts. He’s registering their worries about establishing dangerous precedents and fraying moral threads in a precarious community on the edge of Rome.
So Jesus poses a question to them. “Which is easier?” he says, struggling a little to be heard by the Pharisees over all the raillery. “Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘Take up your bed and walk”?
Which is easier? Surely, no one in the room is pondering efficiency. How is easier germane to anything?
This exchangeability between the forgiveness of sins and the restoration of wellbeing is a kind of resurrection moment well before Easter and well after Easter, too. For all the publics of Jesus, it’s an Eschaton moment, a rich, quick ripening of new creation. The reign of God suddenly is not only as close as Jesus says, but feels livable as such.
I’m thinking of the paralyses that beset us, the beds we’re stuck on. We do our best, sure. We’re plucky. We grin and bear up. We make sometimes ghoulish attempts at joviality, disguising for whole hours at a time that we’re unable to throw back the coverlet and take the smallest step.
But envision Jesus now, meeting your eye, admiring your courage, laughing at your little jokes—and then startling you, just for a moment, by saying that your secret’s safe with him.
And you and a few of your concerned and knowing friends are puzzled, maybe even a little irked. How does that announcement have any bearing on anything? How does it offer the sort of all’s-well reassurance that Jesus’ eye seems to promise? And then Jesus asks you which is simpler to say:
Your sins are forgiven.
Take up that rascally final project, submit the squirmy thing, and graduate.
Take up your distractedness and begin to read deeply again.
Take up that angrily broken friendship and see it through to peace again.
Take up your compulsive behavior and live easily, graciously in your body again.
In Eastertide, we learn again that the forgiveness of sins and the restoration of human life become fungible. There’s a blessed interchangeability between our deepest spiritual needs and our wildest hopes for wellbeing. Not perhaps in the way we’re imagining. Like the fellow on the mat, raising his sack of wine, and hoping only for a laugh, we’re famously inept when it comes to imagining.
But in the crowded rooms of our everyday experience, when we meet Jesus’ eye, and hear him pose his odd questions about simplicity and viability, we learn to admit that somehow nothing could be easier than resurrection.