I’m preaching tomorrow, and I’m involved in my normal sermon preparation: read the lessons, read a sermon, read the lessons, read some commentary, and read some more. As I have read, I have noted what people say about the Gospel story of the paralytic with four friends. They take him to Jesus’s home, and can’t get in for the crowd. So, they take him up the back stairs, open up the roof, lower him into the middle of the gathering, and Jesus heals him. It’s a well known healing story. And most of the commentators and preachers I’m reading are emphasizing the healing power of Jesus, the importance of forgiveness, and the persistent faith of the four friends.
Now, I’m aware of those aspects. I may yet end up preaching on one of them. At the same time, none of those things are first in my reflection. What has struck me is the image of Jesus, sitting in his living room (or on his covered patio, depending on whom you read) while his roof is being removed.
Now, this can’t have been a simple or quiet process. As I read, your typical Galilean roof was composed of several layers. Heavy beams were laid as the primary structural strength. Across the beams were laid smaller branches and twigs. These had to have been reasonably substantial themselves, and/or relatively thick, because people commonly walked on these roofs, and often used them in the summer as we would use a deck or sleeping porch. Finally, this was covered with a layer of clay or packed earth. This was thick enough to keep out the occasional rain or for grass to grow in. It was also packed, and would have had to have been strong enough that it didn’t crack or shatter as people walked on it. All in all, it had to have been a pretty substantial construction, something that would have taken some real time and trouble to get through.
So, here is Jesus, sitting at home, surrounded by people who wanted to hear him, to touch him, to know him. Mark suggests it is a pretty good crowd, filling the house and overflowing into the street in front. The door is clogged with bodies, as are the windows, stubborn listeners determined to catch every word, to see any miracle that might occur. To this scene come four men carrying a fifth on a litter. Who knows what the paralyzed man wanted? It’s almost as if no one asked him. But his four friends are determined. They can’t get in the door. They can’t get in the windows. So they climb up the back stairs and begin coming through the roof. Hard packed clay, branches and twigs of various sizes, perhaps another layer of clay like plaster, sealing the branches from underneath: this has to take some time and make some noise.
So, here, again, is Jesus. Would he have noticed the feet on the back stairs, the steps on the roof? They were common enough sounds, so common perhaps as to bring no notice. But at some point, some hammering starts above his head: worn, calloused heels and fists pounding at, peeling at the clay surface. At some point, clay and twigs and dust must begin to flake down, first in specks and then in chunks. At some point, people around Jesus begin looking up. Jesus begins looking up, to see his own roof disappearing in pieces, some up out of sight, some down into his own hair and ears and eyes.
What is Jesus thinking at this? Is he impressed at their determination? Is he angry at the damage to his home? Is he bemused at first, as uncertain as anyone else at what’s happening? Does he clear the floor as the hole grows bigger and bigger, big enough to get a stretcher through? Does he keep teaching, finding new inspiration in the events taking place over his head? He doesn’t send up a delegation, either to stop the destruction or to bring these vandals down. Apparently, he watches and waits, perhaps amused by the trouble these people are willing to go through, perhaps frustrated at the crowds that they can’t get through.
And suddenly a body comes through the ceiling – the first friend, there to catch and guide down the litter to which the paralyzed man is tied. Perhaps a second comes down, helping to ease the litter down, protecting the patient. Or perhaps some of the members of the crowd help catch – perhaps Jesus himself. Perhaps the first time Jesus touches this man is to help him come down safely, gently through Jesus’s own ceiling.
We know the rest of the story: Jesus first proclaims the paralytic’s sins forgiven, and then, in the face of the scandal expressed by the scribes, tells him “Take up your litter and walk home.” Surely the point is the forgiveness of God, confirmed by the healing acts of Christ. Still, I am in awe enough of the simple grace and hospitality of Jesus, who can stand there calmly while his own home is damaged, vandalized, made vulnerable, and still have the grace to welcome and touch and heal and forgive this man, and send him walking out through the crowd that wouldn’t allow him to be carried in.
That hospitality seems as much an expression of God’s acceptance of sinners as anything that follows. That simple, powerful acceptance speaks as much to me in my sinfullness as Jesus's words to the paralytic. Sure, I want to take up my litter and walk. But I'm powerfully grateful for what has to happen first: that Jesus is willing simply to have me come. For that welcome, that hospitality, in the face of all it costs, give praise and thanks to God.