Sunday Reflection: In sickness and in sin

We're a little behind the times due to family commitments. This reflection is for Sunday, Feb 19, 2006.

Today's gospel reading concerns the paralytic who "dropped in" on Jesus.

More interesting than the details of how four men can tear open a roof in a few minutes, is the seeming equation of sin and sickness throughout this reading.

I'm a man of the modern age, and I don't much like it when people see sickness as a result of sinfulness. For one non-trivial example, the crowing by certain "religious" people about AIDS being God's punishment for the "sin" of homosexuality is a little more than uncharitable. It's positively ghoulish, since AIDS also hits African families Haitians and hemophiliacs. So, times when the gospels link the sin and sickness make we rationalists a little edgy.

To the story...

Jesus, at home in Capernaum is mobbed inside a house. Four men carrying a paralytic on a litter break through the roof and lower the sick man before Jesus.

“Child, your sins are forgiven,” he says.

The scribes get their noses out of joint: "Who but God alone can forgive sins?” they think.

Interestingly, Jesus did not say, "I forgive your sins," but "Your sins are forgiven." An ambiguous statement. Kind of like the difference between "I threw a ball" and “A ball was thrown." The latter does not exclude the possibility that the speaker threw the ball. But the scribes in this case did equate the two statements, and perhaps for good reason, as we shall see.

Jesus is described as understanding what the scribes were thinking and challenges them: "Which is easier, to say ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk?’"

It's almost as though he is saying, "Listen. I have two ways to say the same thing. But one has 6 syllables and one has 7." In any event, the focus is on the seeming fact that Jesus equates the two sentences -- that the man's sins are forgiven and that he is healed.

Then, Jesus seals the deal, showing that scribes were right on the money all the time. "But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth, I say to you, 'Rise, pick up your mat, and go home.'”

Jesus gives the crowd a three-fer: he heals the man, (cool enough all by itself) he forgives his sins, (whoa!) and he demonstrates his authority as Son of Man.

But what of this equation of sin and sickness? It's hard to know where to go with this. In other places in the gospels, Jesus makes it clear that a man's sinfulness is not the cause of his sickness. In Luke 13:4, he discusses a local tragedy in which a group was killed by falling stonework: "Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem?" In John 9, on the other hand, Jesus
shows that sickness sometimes has no connection with sin, but is imposed by God for his own good purpose. In the story of the man born blind, told in John 9, the disciples ask Jesus whether the man's sightlessness is due to his sins or to his parents'. "Neither he ," Jesus replies, "nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. "

So, there seems to be three ways sins and sickness are related: sickness can be caused by sin, by accident and by the will of God.

We moderns have little trouble understanding that social sin can cause death and disease. Pollution can cause cancer; lack of charity toward the poor can cause malnutrition and death; theft can rob victims of the fruits of their labors and set themselves up for poverty and illness.

But can my sin make me sick? And if so, is it just a psychosomatic illness caused by guilt? Hard to say, I have no answer. There are some who are so self-centered and selfish that they drive away their friends. Stress caused by guilt over sin can lower one's immune response, but this is something different.

I confess that I have no easy answer and I will allow God to work an answer in his own time.

Let us pray.

Lord, your Word sometimes throws us a curveball that baffles us and leaves us spinning at the plate. May we not pretend that because we didn't see the ball that we hit it over the fence.

Leaving baseball metaphors...

What is the value of showing us that our sin can make us sick? May it be that like an unpurged poison, our sins never leave us, slowly strangling the life within us until we become paralyzed and a burden on our friends and families? Does sin deaden us to our own capacities, becoming an obstacle to carrying our own weight and making our own way?

Open our minds and hearts to hear your words, and refuse to have them explained away by those with facile answers. Let us live honestly in our own ignorance until we are enlightened with the true dawn of understanding that is yours alone to give.

art: "Winter" by Pat Apt.