After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Beth-za′tha, which has five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” 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.
As I re-read this Gospel passage, I try to move from being a mere spectator to really entering into this scene of unexpected grace. I imagine being by this pool, surrounded by the sick and dying: I can almost hear the sound of the water lapping against the edge of the pool, murmuring in harmony with the voices around me. Out of the corner of my eye I catch an elderly man half asleep, while a women in the corner is crying softly. The infirm are packed in here like sardines, while the odor of humanity hangs heavy in the warm air.
Here by this pool lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. What do all of these people have in common? They have a variety of ailments, but in the end, one thing in common: they cannot move. These are people who can’t walk: either because they are paralyzed, or because they can’t see, or because the pain is just too much to bear. Various infirmities, but in the end they share the same lot: waiting for a miracle, because otherwise they’re not going anywhere.
Maybe I too feel stuck for some reason. I can ask myself: is there something that is blocking me from taking steps, from acting, from following the Lord? I know that in order to be His disciple one must be ready to follow, to move, to risk. Am I stuck because the pain inside is just too much? Am I wary of taking steps because I don’t see clearly the road ahead? Am I paralyzed by the fear of falling yet again?
In this crowd I now encounter a man without a name, without an age, without description except for one detail: the fact that he has been ill for thirty-eight years. This anonymous man is identified only by his illness. From before Jesus himself was even born, this man has been sick.
Jesus enters directly into this place of illness and sadness, and does something completely unexpected. He asks this man, “Do you want to be healed?” Whereas in other Gospel passages recounting a healing miracle it is the sick person who seeks Jesus, here the paradigm is reversed: it is Jesus who takes the initiative and asks, interrogates, surprises.
Personally, if I had been in this man’s shoes and heard a question like this from a complete stranger, I would have been kind of annoyed. Wouldn’t it seem obvious that if I’m here by the pool and visibly ill, I’m here to be healed? What kind of question is that?!
But neither the question nor the answer is quite so obvious.
The Gospel is full of questions that Jesus asks about man’s desires. What do you want me to do for you? Do you want to be healed? What are your desires? This is truly powerful, and reveals that no one really wants our freedom as much as Jesus does. Unfortunately, we’ve heard these questions so often that at times we don’t truly let them sink in. In some settings you’re labeled as a dreamer with your head in the clouds when you talk about desires, because in our efficient modern society we are told to have our feet on the ground, to follow common sense, and to do our duty. But if we don’t allow ourselves to desire that which exceeds our limits, we’re settling for the small idolatries of what is comfortable, secure: a pocket-sized God and a pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all happiness. Instead, God calls us to risk acknowledging those deep longings that He himself has planted in our hearts, even though the ache of waiting for their fulfillment might cause us pain as we entrust their realization to His providence.
The question that Jesus posts to this sick man is truly moving: He cares not only about this man’s physical healing, but most of all about his interior freedom and healing. He cares so deeply that He tries to bring this man back to his own deep desire. The Gospel takes great care to describe Jesus’ loving attention toward this man: “When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him: ‘Do you want to be healed?’” Jesus sees and He knows. He sees this poor man and knows of his deep disappointment and how much He is in need of hope. And precisely because Jesus knows this man’s heart, He is not afraid to touch the most vulnerable point in it. And thus He asks the most seemingly obvious of questions, which in reality is not so predictable after all.
In fact, this man never actually responds to Jesus’s question! Instead of acknowledging his desire for healing, he transfers his attention from Jesus’s question to the negative circumstances and his unfulfilled expectations. In this man’s calculations, the only way to be healed is to have someone immerge him in the pool. He hasn’t even considered the possibility of encountering Jesus. He has before Him the Son of God, his Creator and Savior who can do all things, and yet in the smallness of his heart, he retreats into the shell of his solitude and envy: “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” He never responds to Jesus’s question (“Do you want to be healed?”) but instead complains that he has no one and compares his situation to that of those who precede him.
These temptations to solitude and envy are precisely those that the enemy uses to distract us from the love and healing that Jesus is really and truly offering to each one of us. We could say that this sick man at the pool illustrates for us a classic case of the victim complex. When do I feel like a victim? When I don’t believe in my gift of freedom and blame all my problems on the circumstances and people around me, losing the hope of ever receiving something beautiful or choosing something good in life.
In the end it all boils down to choosing between two basic life attitudes:
I don’t RECEIVE what I DESERVE
(the logic of merit and disappointed expectations)
I don’t DESERVE what I RECEIVE
(the logic of the gift, of grace, and of gratitude)
These two statements have just one simple switch in verbs, but the underlying philosophies are profoundly different. Jesus gives us the choice between these two attitudes, but He leaves us free. If I continue to close my heart in disappointment and think that I need to earn something I don’t have, then I choose my own sadness. If instead I allow Jesus to gaze upon me and touch me with His love, and am willing to slowly but surely let Him transform my outlook on life’s circumstances, then I can be free to give thanks always because I remember that truly I don’t deserve all the good that I’ve received: the gift of my very life, the Father’s love, the morning sun caressing my cheek, and a place beside the Son in His kingdom.
The beauty of the encounter between Jesus and this man is that Jesus goes far beyond both the man’s complaints and his expectations and instead freely gives him the healing that deep down he desires. And Jesus does so with a very clear command: “‘Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked.” In the end, it is such a simple healing: there is nothing particularly extraordinary about it: no angel, no immersion in the pool waters, no special gestures, but just these three verbs, these invitations from Jesus that I too can receive today:
• Rise: pick yourself up from that disappointment, from your defeat, raise your head and go beyond your limited perspective and your old habits
• Take up your pallet: acknowledge your suffering, and don’t be afraid to give it a name, but remember that this weight you are carrying is not a yoke that defines you; pick up this pallet, take ownership of this cross, because it is Jesus Himself who is giving you the strength and the freedom to do so
• Walk: take at least one step, change perspective, be willing to move and be moved from your comfort zone in order to follow this Master who has freed you in order to follow Him
When we encounter Jesus in prayer, it is critical that we be really honest with Him, because it is the only way to true and lasting transformation and growth in freedom. At times we need to know that we can answer His questions honestly and say: “Lord, I just don’t want to.” It is precisely in that place of sincerity and vulnerability that His grace can be at work. I’m reminded of the parable that Jesus himself recounts of the man with two sons, in which one son says yes to his father but then doesn’t do what he asks, while the other son initially says no but in the end has a change of heart and is the one who does his father’s will. Let’s be real with Jesus. Let’s be honest, and He will work on our hardness of heart. Besides, He isn’t interested in our perfection (the all-too-human perfection that we often grasp at) but He desires trusting sons and daughters who live in His love.
I can choose one of the following questions to bring to prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to give me the gifts of courage and honestly.
1. What does Jesus’ command, “Rise, take up your pallet and walk!” say to me today? What fall do I need to pick myself up from? How would I describe my pallet? And in what direction am I walking?
2. If I were to rewrite this Gospel passage with my name, how would it read?
One _____________________________________was there, who had been ____________________________________________
for ______________________________ years. When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want _______________________________________________________________________________?” The ______________________ answered him, “Sir, I have no ______________________________________________________________.”
3. Which statement is easier for me to think? And why?
I don’t RECEIVE what I DESERVE
I don’t DESERVE what I RECEIVE