When reading the Bible in snippets, it is really easy to miss the point, like thinking just because someone is healed that they are also made whole.
Some of you might have noticed that for the last few months my weekly posts are based on the lectionary. For those of you not familiar, a lectionary is a prescribed set of Bible readings for certain Sundays and Church Festivals. The idea is that when you use it, people reflect on texts they might usually skip over. Those texts also tell two congruent stories over the course of a year, one about Jesus and another about the Christian life. For these reasons, I am generally a fan.
The Reading We Have
That said, sometimes those assigned readings fail to provide the kind of context needed to make sense of the story. That is true this week when Jesus heals a lame man.
Given that the reading only focuses on the healing itself it would be easy to come to any number of conclusions. One would center on Jesus’ power. Another might center on the faith of the man who obeyed Jesus’ invitation to stand up and walk. Still another might center on how Jesus approached the man who wanted to be healed but did not know or believe that Jesus could do the job. But ultimately, none of these works with the broader text. Instead, this is a story about a man who was healed, but not made whole.
The Whole Story
While the reading starts in John 5, the story begins before that. John 4 closes with Jesus healing the son of a government official. Now, in that day, a government official implies a Roman. So a Roman official, someone who is outside of Jesus’ faith tradition, comes to Jesus asking for his son’s healing and believes Jesus when he tells him the boy is healed. As a result, the official’s entire household comes to believe in Jesus. The boy was healed and they were all made whole.
Then, the very next story involves a lame Jewish man, someone part of Jesus’ faith tradition, waiting beside water he believes to hold magical healing powers. The idea of magic water fits in more with Greco-Roman practices. Then, when Jesus approaches the man and asks if he would like to be healed, the man tells Jesus why it cannot happen. Jesus heals him anyway.
But instead of being made whole, instead of seeing the world differently, he continues life as before, minus the infirmity. So when the Jewish authorities rebuke him for carrying his mat on the Sabbath, he blames Jesus who healed him. He even goes so far as to help the Jewish religious leaders identify Jesus. This then sparks the conversation about God’s crazy definition of glory. So while Jesus healed the man, his understanding of the world did not change. Unlike the Roman official, he was not made whole.
Healed and Whole
I cannot help but see these stories as an allegory for my faith journey. For decades I believed that Jesus forgave (healed) me, but that belief had zero impact on my behavior. You could argue that, in many ways, it justified me not changing. After all, it reinforced my sinfulness so what more could you expect? Beyond that, all I had to do was acknowledge my sinfulness and my behavior was forgiven. Why change when there is such an easy out? This means faith might have offered healing, but I was not made whole.
For this reason, I cannot help but think that today, in mainstream churches around the world, well-intentioned people are going to have the wrong lesson reinforced. They will not hear Jesus rebuke the man he heals. They will miss that being healed is not the same as being whole. The good news will only remain good for some. The Kingdom of God will not come in their lives.
There is more to the story than what shows up in this week’s reading, and until we honor the whole story, we will find ourselves missing the point.