Crowd or Community by Dr. Neil Cudney
The story of the paralyzed man in Mark 2 is an oft-told Sunday School lesson. However, this historical event speaks powerfully on many levels. We need to re-discover the depth and revolutionary message presented through this encounter. There is much to be discovered in regards to how communities of faith engage and minister to those with disabilities. If w are to ‘take on’ the image of Christ in both our person and corporate lives we must seek to understand, embrace and emulate Christ’s vision and purpose in ministry.
Firstly, there were five men. There are the four men who carried the mat, and then the one being carried. We know nothing of the previous relationship between these five, but they make up, albeit a small one, community. We know that there was a decision made; the disabled man needed to encounter Jesus. We do not know if they expected a healing although they knew it was necessary that they ‘bring this man to Jesus’ and they would have heard the healing rumors. They were so convinced of this that they were willing to overcome numerous critical obstacles on their disabled friend’s behalf.
Secondly, there was a packed crowd. The crowd was so intent with their own personal encounter with Jesus that they ignored those around them. It was an egocentric experience. It would seem it was more about what they ‘personally’ could get from Jesus – if only to see and hear what the fuss was all about.
These four men asked those in the crowd if they could make way for the one that they carried: if they could let this one with great need through their midst. However, because of the crowds’ ‘no one before me’ attitude’, no one was willing to budge. The crowd had fought for their space, ‘they’ were the important and powerful ones and ‘no one’ was going to take it from them. What was important was ‘their own’ encounter with Jesus. Potentially the crowd closes in even more tightly to prevent anyone from slipping by. It is interesting that the group is described as a ‘crowd’ and not a ‘community’. How often do we gather today as a crowd, rather than a community on a Sunday morning? A crowd has a mentality. Crowd mentality is interesting, strangers will ‘work’ together as it benefits the ‘individual’ – they will push together in order to block the entrance of another – but they are not functioning in the interest of community, but in the interest of self. We see two groups here: the crowd, and the community. The five men are different from the crowd. They were truly a community; the focus is not on their own personal encounter with Christ, but how they can help this one be lifted up, or down in this case, so that he might be seen and touched by Jesus. The passage says, that ‘they couldn’t bring him to Jesus because of the crowd’.
What is refreshing is that this little community did not let the crowd prevent their friend’s need to encounter Jesus – but found a way in spite of the barriers and obstacles.
Lost in Crowd, but found in Community
The crowd and community comparison is powerful. We have this tendency to confuse the crowd as being the same as community. In our present culture, we have largely lost this sense of living communities. There are moments however when we are deeply moved because the community has come together in a time of disaster. But consider how many of us have never really experienced true ‘community’. If we are to truly minister to those with disabilities, or better still – minister with those with disabilities, we must re-construct the life of community. It does not mean sell everything and heading up North (this is being written in Canada”) and start a commune. But we do need to break with the rampant individualism that so defines our society – even inside the Church – especially in the Church – where all too often we experience the phenomena of being alone in the crowd. I’m not referring to a church, but to The Church. Jean Vanier in his book “Tear’s of Silence” (1975) writes this poem:
An encounter is a strange and wonderful thing
one person to another
one to another
one to another
but we can be together
and not meet
we can live in the same house
day after day
sit at the same table
kneel at the same pew
read the same books
but never meet
we can kiss
gestures of love
but never meet
a meeting is a strange and wonderful thing
one person to another
one to another
one to another.
It begs the question; how we as Church are more ‘community’ and less ‘crowd’ especially for those who have disabling experiences in their lives. Can we become more like the five men of Mark 2 (the four who carried and the one being carried) who came to ‘give to’ Jesus, and less like the crowd who were there to ‘get’ from Him?
Accessibility issues are not always physical. While physical accessibility is certainly important – many find that although they can enter the building, entering into and belonging to the community is quite another matter. Not to be put off by the crowd, the little community found a way around the physical obstacles – but they had to find an unconventional solution. It involved personal significant risk and effort in order to so. Systems, structures, expectations, attitudes and ‘social’ convention can all be considerable barriers. The man on the mat had no hope of surmounting the barriers on his own – he needed his community. Ray Anderson in his book “On Being: Essay’s in Theological Anthropology” suggests that our real personhood is not found in our individuality, but in our co-humanity. It is in being and living out true community that our ‘individual’ personhood is discovered. Back to our story. The men cut the hole in the roof and lower the man before Jesus. What a spectacle that must have been. Dirt and dust falling from the ceiling – all eyes looking up as a hole begans to appear, and four faces are seen peering in. Suddenly a man is lowered down. Did Jesus have this co-humanity in mind when He made that controversial statement in Mark 2:5 “Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralyzed man “my child your sins are forgiven.” See their faith? The man, because Jesus saw the faith of his friends forgave him of his sin? Commentaries have many opinions on this –however there is a significant relationship to be discovered here. Community plays and important part in the healing process – spiritually and physically. A Community is formed when coming together and‘bearing’ with another – and is will to overcome obstacles along side of the other. We need to keep in mind, that the physical obstacles were not obstacles for the four but they were psychological and where in fact as much a barrier as a stone wall. What they did was not motivated out of ‘self interest’, but purely out of compassion, care and justice for another (See Matthew 12:18-21). What implications does this idea of crowd and community have on us as we seek to minister to those with exceptional needs? How can we make sure that we are living out community?
Instead of being excited for the disabled man, some in the crowd become angry and judgmental. In spite of this, the words that the disabled man heard from Jesus ‘my child your sins are forgiven’ were undoubtedly greatly welcomed and brought comfort and much needed relief. We must remember that it is quite likely that this man had heard from religious leaders that his present condition was because of either his own sin, or the sin of his parents – a burden he had been carrying his whole life. It is quite likely that a significant amount of the time he spent lying on his mat was spent searching his heart and his mind, thinking that he – or his parents had committed a great offense against God. Messages such as those are powerful, especially when they come from those in authority. What are the messages that many, who are disabled, here in our own culture, and in other cultures around the world are hearing? What are the words that the disabled long to hear from God? How do we, join the small community of the four men and journey with those labeled ‘disabled’ before Christ so that they might hear those words? For this man, and his family, the news that ‘his sins were forgiven’ was possibly greater than physical healing could ever have been. We are so ‘physical’ and ‘ability’ focused in our own culture that we question the order of Jesus’ actions. Why did Jesus not heal the man and then forgive his sins? Would that have not been more compassionate? Quite likely Jesus spoke out of the concern for the man himself – and those of his friends. This was an ancient Jewish culture where lives revolved entirely around the reality of God – and their position with God was of primary importance. The other reality is that because of this man’s disability (state of uncleanness by the Law) he was unable, or more likely, prevented from entering into the temple where he could have had a sacrifice made for his sins. How often had this man been at the temple gates, longing to enter, yet it was not an accessible place to him. He could have watched for years as others streamed into the temple to offer their sacrifices and to ‘hear from God’.
We tend to see Jesus’ words as a challenge directed to the religious leaders in the crowd. What if that was not His intent at all. Could Jesus’ attention truly be subjectively on the individual before him and that his intentions were not to objectify the man – Jesus spoke directly to the concerns of the man and his friends. It was the crowd that wanted to make this a much different matter. Why couldn’t they have just been happy for this man? While Jesus was focused on the individual brought to him by the small faith filled community, the religious leaders were more concerned with their own sense of religious propriety. Maybe their issues were not so much on ‘only God can forgive sins’, as they claimed, but that they in fact had been left out of the process. What is not said but is most certainly in their minds is “only God can forgive sins – and through us as Priests to God”. If suddenly people’s sins could be forgiven without them or a temple sacrifice, their value, power and position was greatly threatened. I wonder if we (as a society, Christian community or those who serve) don’t make more room for those with disabilities because of a perceived threat. We tend to judge our value and worth on, who others are, and what they can do – and subsequently on what we can do for them (I am a good person because I help those have disabilities).
Jean Vanier observes,
“In certain countries, we have seen the development of special schools, or sometimes integrated schools and workshops for people with handicaps. There has been a move towards emptying the huge institutions and psychiatric hospitals. But many of the people who have supposedly been taken back into society find themselves alone, lost in huge towns, imprisoned in their sadness without any kind of community. The physical walls may have disappeared, but the psychological walls remain.”
“Why do you Question this in your hearts?”
Jesus knew immediately what they were thinking, so he asked them, “Why do you question this in your hearts?” We need to be careful in how judgmental we become of the Pharisees. We need to think about how responsive we would be in the same situation, if suddenly, some man started to teach and preach something ‘different’ from what we were used to. As leaders, they needed to constantly protect the people from all those who proclaimed to be a messiah. Additionally, change is difficult; significant change: painful – especially when all your training, work and life experiences lead you to believe that you’ve been heading in what you thought was the ‘right’ direction all along. The question itself is surprising – I mean who wouldn’t question in the face of a major paradigm shift: “Why do you question this in your hearts?”
What were they questioning? “Only God can forgive sins!” In this, they were not wrong – in fact, we would have the same response if someone came and simply said, “I forgive you of all your sins”. Hold on, we’d be thinking. Of course it’s blasphemy – unless, of course the man was God. We have the benefit of looking back at the Cross and the personal testimony of His disciples. They did not.
How is this connected to our discussions on ministering to those with disabilities? We need patience. For many of us who have worked in this part of the harvest field for many years, we see how often the Church is ‘lacking’ in its own ministry to those with cognitive disabilities and can’t help but wonder concerning this issue: “Why do you question this in your hearts?” It is a significant mind shift on so many different levels. I recently sat in on a Pastors’ meeting and spoke to a number of these issues – using Mark 2. Ministry involving those with disabilities is a different way of thinking for them – of being and doing church. They were not opposed, but the question arose “How”? We need to have patience and keep in mind that in so many ways they are ‘doing’ church right. What we’re suggesting is that for generations the Church has ‘missed’ when it comes to functioning as a holistic healing community involving those with disabilities. In their minds, with all their training, and experience and lives they’ve been doing what they thought were the ‘right’ ways – and we are suggesting another.
There is certainly a message for the Church – but we must be patient. Deliberate, strategic, determined, but never the less: patient. We must continue to show the way, challenge the conventions, be willing to be (albeit small) a community that is willing at the appropriate times, and for the right reasons, to circumvent the crowd, and to tear away a part of the roof to lower the person before the presence of Christ. Again, back to the four men. They didn’t do what they did to ‘make a point’ or ‘show what others were doing wrong’ or act out of defiance or even ‘righteous indignation’ (even though they had reason – the crowd tried to prevent them after all). Their sole purpose was ministry to the one – their friend, so that one may encounter Jesus.
As we read this narrative of Mark 2, the aspect of physically healing of the disability is certainly a key part. On the surface it appears that forgiveness of sins is connected with the physically healing, but this not necessarily the case. We make that connection between the two, and certainly the religious leaders did, but seemingly Jesus does not. In Jesus’ mind it appears that the man’s healing was complete with the man’s forgiveness of sin, which had nothing to do with his remaining physical disability – but as a result of the man’s participation in the human condition and a fallen Image of God. The physical healing seems to have more to do with the unbelief of the Pharisees (of others) rather than a necessary state for the disable man – It is the reality that this man’s sins had been forgiven by Jesus thus ‘truly forgiven’ and yet ‘still disabled’ that is at question for the crowd. Jesus removes all doubt by asking that loaded question “Is it easier to say to the paralyzed man ‘your sins are forgiven,’ or ‘stand up, pick up your mat, and walk’?” Here Jesus creates a quandary – The Pharisees know that if they say “it’s easier to say ‘stand up, pick up your mat and walk”, it leaves the door wide open for Jesus to say “Okay boys, make it happen”. Yet, theologically they are fully aware the former is much more problematic – to have the authority to state: your sins are forgiven is much more difficult, they have 5,000 years of sacrificial systems that tell them differently. There is that panic stricken state that must have fell upon the Pharisees – how do we answer and not ‘lose credibility when asked to ‘heal’ the man physically. But before they can answer Jesus says “Stand up, pick up your mat, and go home!” And it says that “the man jumped up, grabbed his mat, and walked out through the stunned onlookers”.
Maybe, we too have our eyes set on the wrong healing. The onlookers certainly had a reason to be stunned at the physically healing; however, had they truly understood the Kingdom of God, the spiritual healing of the man was the far greater miracle. Although the physical healing was spectacular, it was temporal. The spiritual healing was the miracle, and somehow, the ‘faith’ of the four friends was a part of that miraculous healing. What most people are in search of with, or without a disability is a ‘healed’ relationship with God, and with the community – the knowledge that they truly exist and belong. We are called to be one of the four friends – and it can be as simple as picking up the corner of a mat and carrying them to meet Jesus.