Friday, January 15, 2010

Which Is Easier To Say, "Your Sins Are Forgiven", or "Pick Up Your Mat And Go Home" ?

Friday of the First Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I 1 Samuel 8:4-7, 10-22a

All the elders of Israel came in a body to Samuel at Ramah
and said to him, “Now that you are old,
and your sons do not follow your example,
appoint a king over us, as other nations have, to judge us.”

Samuel was displeased when they asked for a king to judge them.
He prayed to the LORD, however, who said in answer:
“Grant the people’s every request.
It is not you they reject, they are rejecting me as their king.”

Samuel delivered the message of the LORD in full
to those who were asking him for a king.
He told them:
"The rights of the king who will rule you will be as follows:
He will take your sons and assign them to his chariots and horses,
and they will run before his chariot.
He will also appoint from among them his commanders of groups
of a thousand and of a hundred soldiers.
He will set them to do his plowing and his harvesting,
and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.
He will use your daughters as ointment makers, as cooks, and as bakers.
He will take the best of your fields, vineyards, and olive groves,
and give them to his officials.
He will tithe your crops and your vineyards,
and give the revenue to his eunuchs and his slaves.
He will take your male and female servants,
as well as your best oxen and your asses,
and use them to do his work.
He will tithe your flocks and you yourselves will become his slaves.
When this takes place,
you will complain against the king whom you have chosen,
but on that day the LORD will not answer you.”

The people, however, refused to listen to Samuel’s warning
and said,“Not so! There must be a king over us.
We too must be like other nations,
with a king to rule us and to lead us in warfare
and fight our battles.”
When Samuel had listened to all the people had to say,
he repeated it to the LORD, who then said to him,
“Grant their request and appoint a king to rule them.”


We begin reading today about Samuel and his involvement with Saul and the institution of the monarchy in Israel.

The institution of the monarchy was a major turning point of Israel's political and religious history. The sanctuary of the ark of Shiloh had been destroyed and unity was in danger as the Philistine threat increased. A section of the people began asking for a king “such as other nations have'” but others held the opposite view that Yahweh, Israel's only lord, should be left to provide leaders as circumstances required, as he had done in the days of the Judges.

These two schools of thought find a voice in anti-royalist (ch. 8; 10:17-24; 12) and royalist (9:1-10:16; 11) versions of the institution of the monarchy, here placed side by side. The royalist view (which we will see tomorrow) will ultimately prevail, but Saul, the first king, is scarcely distinguishable from the judges who preceded him. The monarchy will only achieve its full development in David. He is one of the outstanding characters of the whole Bible and in him the religious and civil functions of the Israelite monarchy will be harmoniously combined. He will be able to combine his political responsibilities with his service of the Lord. However, none of his successors will achieve this ideal. David, and really David alone (in spite of his serious weaknesses), remains the model of the future King through whom God is to bring about the salvation of his people, namely the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed of the Lord.

As today’s reading opens we find the elders of the people approaching Samuel and telling him that, in view of his old age (and, it might be added, the corrupt behavior of his sons) they should have a king. It soon becomes apparent, however, that the more basic reason for their request was a desire to be like the surrounding nations – to have a human king as a symbol of national power and unity who would lead them in battle and guarantee their security. As a loose conglomerate of tribes they would never be able to deal effectively with their enemies (who had kings). Israel had suffered a number of calamitous defeats at the hands of its old nemesis, the Philistines, and the people saw that what was needed was a powerful leader as a strong unifying and rallying point.

There were two reactions to this innovation of having a king – one against and one in favor. Some would say they were forgetting that they were not like other nations. By their desire to appoint a human king they were, in a way, setting aside their real Lord. Israel had always been a theocracy where only God was its King and Lord and the idea of a human king seemed almost blasphemous. On the other hand, there were those who, for political reasons and even for the people’s survival, emphasized the need for a single, strong ruler.

In today's reading we see the anti-royalist view, while tomorrow the royalist arguments will be put forward. The misgivings of the anti-royalists are seen in Samuel's displeasure at the people asking for a king. God, too, is not happy but tells Samuel to let the people have their way: "It is not you they reject, they are rejecting me as their king." The sin of Israel in requesting a king did not rest in any evil inherent in kingship itself, but rather in the kind of kingship the people envisioned and their reasons for requesting it.

Their desire was for a form of kingship that denied their covenant relationship with the Lord, who himself was pledged to be their saviour and deliverer. In requesting a king "like all other nations" they broke the covenant, rejected the Lord, who was their King and forgot his constant provision for their protection in the past.

In a rather sarcastic tone, Samuel proceeds to tell the people all the “advantages” that will accrue to them by having a king. His description reflects not so much what happened under Saul or David but in a later period, beginning with Solomon, and reflects the bitter experience of the writer’s own generation. Later on, we will see how terrible some of those kings really were.

Samuel warns them that having a king will reduce them to virtual slavery:
     Their sons will become the king’s charioteers and minions.
     They will become ‘war fodder’ to fight his battles for him.
     They will become serfs on their own land.
     They will become weapon makers for the king’s armies.
     They will become laborers to provide his needs.

     He will commandeer their vineyards and olive groves,
     and give them out to his favorite eunuchs and slaves.
     He will take over their best servants and all their herds for his own use.
     He will tax them to the point of reducing them to slaves.

Then – and only then – will the people complain to God but it will be too late. They have made their own bed and will have to sleep in it. Only the king will enjoy rights; the people will have duties and obligations. In fact, the demands of the king would parallel all that Israel was expected to consecrate to the Lord as her Great King (persons, lands, crops, livestock) – even the whole population. But now it going to be given to a very fallible – and sometimes – wicked human being.

For now, the people will not listen to Samuel's arguments. They are determined to have a king like their neighbors who will lead them to war and fight their battles. And God said: "Let them have their way." Samuel is told to appoint someone as king and he tells the people to go back to their own cities and towns.

We, too, can be very insistent in asking God to give us something we feel we really need. Yet, when it comes we may bitterly regret the consequences. Sometimes what we take to be the answer to a prayer may only be the fruit of our own persistence. But, whatever happens, wherever our choices have led us, God is always there and it is always in our present situation, in the here-and-now, that we must learn to respond to his call. Even our mistakes can become moments of grace and enlightenment.

+++ +++ +++ +++

Responsorial         Psalm 89
For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
Blessed the people who know the joyful shout;
in the light of your countenance, O LORD, they walk.
At your name they rejoice all the day,
and through your justice they are exalted.
For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
For you are the splendor of their strength,
and by your favor our horn is exalted.
For to the LORD belongs our shield,
and to the Holy One of Israel, our King.
For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
 +++ +++ +++ +++

Gospel                 Mark 2:1-12

When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days,
it became known that he was at home.
Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them,
not even around the door,
and he preached the word to them.

They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.
Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd,
they opened up the roof above him.
After they had broken through,
they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to him,“Child, your sins are forgiven.”
Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves,
“Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming.
Who but God alone can forgive sins?”
Jesus immediately knew in his mind
what they were thinking to themselves, so he said,
“Why are you thinking such things in your hearts?
Which is easier, to say to the paralytic,‘Your sins are forgiven,’
or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk’?
But that you may know
that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth” –
he said to the paralytic,
“I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.”
He rose, picked up his mat at once,
and went away in the sight of everyone.
They were all astounded
and glorified God, saying,
“We have never seen anything like this.”


After some days Jesus returns to Capernaum from his refuge in the desert. Immediately the crowds gather in and around the house where he is staying. It is so crowded that there is no room to get in or out. The ‘house’ is not identified and it is not important. In the early Christian communities, they gathered in one house to celebrate the Eucharist. Jesus was there among them. Some people are inside the house with Jesus, others are still on the outside.Then, four men arrived carrying a paralytic friend. They were anxious to get to Jesus.

Seeing no way in, they went up by the outside staircase on to the flat roof, removed a few tiles and let the man down right at the feet of Jesus.

Jesus is touched by their faith, trust and confidence in him. It is one of the essential conditions for healing. Jesus says to the paralyzed man, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” This must have come as a surprising statement to the paralytic. He had come for healing, not forgiveness. Some scribes who were also present were not only surprised they were deeply shocked. “Why does this man [note the level of contempt] speak that way? Only God can forgive sins." They are perfectly right but their eyes are closed to drawing the obvious conclusion. They don’t see because they do not want to see, because – even worse – they think they can see. (We meet Christians like that too, who are convinced they and they alone are in sole possession of the ‘truth’.)

Jesus then challenges them. “Which is easier to say: ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘Get up, pick up your bed and walk’?” Then he tells the sick man, “Rise, pick up your mat and go home.” Of course, telling a person their sins are forgiven is certainly easier but does the fact that Jesus could heal the paralytic instantly also mean that his sins were forgiven?

We need to realize the close links the Jews of the time made between sin and sickness. Many kinds of sickness were seen as punishment for personal sin or even the sins of parents. (See the story of the man born blind in John’s gospel, chap. 9.) This man then was understood to be paralyzed because of some sin in his life. If Jesus could clearly remove the illness, then the cause of the illness was also being taken away. In so doing, Jesus makes it clear that in forgiving the man's sin he was not blaspheming. He was what he claimed to be.

In these times, we are beginning to realize that there can be a link between our sicknesses and the way we act and relate with people. We know that there is a mutual influence between our thinking and our attitudes, feelings and behavior. Many sicknesses are known to be psychosomatic, the result of stress or an imbalance in our relationships with others, our work, our environment. The words holiness, wholeness, health and healing all have a common root. The whole person, one in whom all parts are in perfect harmony, is the truly holy person.

That wholeness is something we need to pray and work for. The paralyzed man represents all those who are paralyzed in other ways, who are not able to behave with the freedom that a well-integrated person has. And that integration and wholeness concerns our relations with others, with ourselves, with our environment and, of course, with God.

Living Space
The Irish Jesuits

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

I like the resourcefulness of the paralytic's friends. Those trying to help today's earthquake victims have similar logistical problems to solve.

The image of the paralytic descending on a wobbly platform while the people below gaze up in surprise is rather theatrical. Greek plays often involved the gods descending to intervene in human affairs (deus ex machina) possibly staged using a similar mechanism. Maybe this was a visual cue that contributed to dramatic expectation and a suspension of disbelief in the assembly - faith.

It's interesting how Jesus sends people away when He has healed them - and the fact that they manage to obey.