Healing Paralysis in Contemporary Society

An Ecclesial Reading for Division and Isolation

The dramatic Markan narrative of the healing of the paralytic prompts a dialogue with contemporary issues, allowing an addressing of the complexities of our current era. There are two programmatic keys that highlight our reading: (1) Mark opens his gospel introducing John the Baptist with a quote from the prophet Isaiah with the key words “Prepare a way” (Mk 1:2f). 1 The word “way,” hodos in Greek, may be rephrased as pathway — as the way we move forward. (2) Following the arrest of John the Baptist, Mark immediately introduces the mission of Jesus with, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:14). The word “kingdom,” basileίa in Greek, may be interpreted as reign, the reign of God — a reign present in the person of Jesus. These two programmatic keys of this gospel may be highlighted in a reading of the Healing of the Paralytic.

Mark evidently wrote his gospel for an uncertain, rapidly changing, and conflicted society, engaging issues that transcend a set time and place. We should notice the manner in which Mark reconciles these complexities in terms of healing — that is, in terms of restoring the reign of God. There are two key responses to suffering in Mark 2:1-12 that I read as inviting his readers to follow:

  • He makes it clear that the healing process involves an acceptance of the “reign of God” — as manifested in the healing words and actions of Jesus wherein he manifests his reigning “authority” (exsousίan in Greek) to forgive sins.
  • Mark depicts the healing process as occurring in communion with and for others — that is, in an ecclesial manner. (It is worth noting the Greek etymology of the term church, ekklēsia. It is formed by a compound of two Geek words: ek, meaning “out of,” and kaleo, meaning “to call” — “to call out.”)

The text of Mark 2:1-12 resonates with later words of Pope St John Paul II: “To make the Church the home and the school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the new millennium.” 2 Mark makes clear that the ministry of Jesus calls people out of their social divides and isolation, and into a communion of the word [Word] of God that surmounts all suffering (Mk 13:31). Mark also emphasizes the nature of our pathways to the reign of God — our communal sharings in this journey have a self-emptying or kenotic 3 quality. The ultimate healing, the glorious resurrection of faithful disciples, is preceded by the giving of oneself after the kenotic manner of Jesus (Mk 10.41-45).

In a dramatic manner, COVID-19 and recent social tensions have revealed the paralyzing effects that division and isolation have upon persons and communities. As a church we are called to be a living response to Christ’s call out of social division and isolation, and into a communion of healing, inclusion, and salvation. The narrative of Mark 2:1-12 is analogous to a calling forth from the paralyzing effects of social division and isolation, and as such demonstrates a dialogue with contemporary issues. This pericopé exemplifies the importance of answering the call to Christ to act as a witness to others, and to bringing healings that go beyond human abilities. Thereby we may show from the scripture how to engage in “dialogue” with contemporary society. In contexts of emergence from the social divisions, exclusions, and isolations that are paralyzing communities around the world, this article may inspire our carrying those so paralyzed, yet may cause others to question and accuse, as seen in Mark 2:1-12. (One only has to do an online search to see the extensive amount of “where is God in this?” questioning in the face of COVID-19.)

Theological context of the pericopé in the Markan gospel

Gospel commentaries typically use the historical context and redaction criticism methods, and direct readers to an appreciation of the literary construct of the Markan gospel.4 On the reading here proposed, and while noticing seemingly incongruent textual features, appreciation of the Markan narrative is enhanced where there is recognition of his interpretation of tradents in ways that sharpen and deepen meanings in his proclamation. We may notice the evangelist’s depiction of imperfect discipleship, where discipleship or potential discipleship is portrayed as a series of worked-through challenges for those coming to Jesus.5 The call of discipleship in Mark is not limited to major characters, but can be read as a call of all people to move beyond themselves and for others.6 The motίf of discipleship may be read by the contemporary reader as moving from the authorial particularities of the textual portion to alignment with contemporary particularities in our approaching Jesus. It is the meaning of discipleship, rather than the textual particularities, that gives the Markan text a potentially strong contemporary significance. This emphasis on discipleship over the textual particulars allows a reading where we journey toward and find fulfillment in the person of Jesus. So reading the textual narrative allows us to transcend time and place, and to discern a pattern for how, through difficulties, we should seek Jesus as he transcends the particularities of time and place and persons.

In these ways, the use of the methods of textual criticism may be helpful where it enables the contemporary reader to apply discernments to scriptural text after the manner Mark used tradents in giving us his gospel.7 This necessarily involves reader discernment, as expressed in Dei Verbum:

Catholic exegetes . . . and other students of sacred theology, working diligently together and using appropriate means, should devote their energies . . . to an exploration and exposition of the divine writings. (Dei Verbum 23)

The significance of this appreciation by the Council points to our positioning the Bible as an inheritance that is interpreted ecclesially. Thus, the meaning of discipleship can be expanded upon the textual witnesses — for example, in comparison with the “70,” as given in Luke 10:1. Those who in the text may be seen as minor characters can thereby be viewed as paradigmatic disciples. Applying this to Mark 2:1-12, we see the pathways of discipleship engage three distinct characters: the scribes; the group of people accompanying the paralytic; and the paralytic; as developed in the following section. 8

The pathway (hodόs) or pathways to Jesus in the pericopé

Mark 2:1-12 may be read as showing pathways that move people from division and isolation (as in our contemporary society), and instead lead toward Christ — and thereby toward becoming disciples who are “amazed and glorify God” (Mk 2:12). Contemporary society may have to journey from a place of distrust to a place of trust (as with the scribes); from a place of hurt, disability, and isolation to healing, inclusion, and forgiveness (as with the paralytic); and from enacting compassion to others to also receiving mercy and salvation (as with those bringing the paralytic to Jesus, and other witnesses of the event). These are all pathways of discipleship.

The pericopé emphasizes the importance of human initiative in establishing trust, healing and salvation, although these are not realized through human initiative alone. It is Christ who completes the human search for fulfillment. The pathways of such journeys may be amplified under three aspects.

  1. Those who serve others. Mark 2:3 simply mentions these as a group of people who came to Jesus, and four who were carrying the paralytic. The action of this group is dramatic, and they are rewarded for their forthrightness in seeking to put the paralytic before Jesus (as seen in their letting him down from the rooftop). Jesus names their action as one of faith that brings the paralytic to wholeness, both of Christ’s healing of disability and forgiveness of sin (Mk 2:5).
  2. The inhibiting mindset of the scribes. This group is filled with distrust and accusations and obsession with control. Christ “perceives” this, and proceeds to demonstrate his authority (exsousίan) in a way that transcends any human ability and control. Thus, in restoring the wholeness to the paralytic, Jesus goes beyond the controls of any human ability and leads the scribes also to be “amazed and glorify God” (Mk 2:12).
  3. The helplessness of the paralytic. While no word was spoken or final action was possible by the man who was dependent upon others, we may infer an openness to be taken to Christ, and his enacted consent to the extraordinary measures involved. The pathway of the paralytic ends with restoration of health and salvation that witnesses the authority of the “kingdom” (basileίa) of Christ. The depicted journey to discipleship is far from ideal, and this may have been what the evangelist intended to communicate — that the pathways of discipleship may be difficult and complex; they involve the community, the church; and they are only possible with receptivity to the words of Christ. Fundamental change only happens with a coming to Christ and a journeying along the pathways of discipline that are involved in following the Lord, and in bearing witness as seen where the paralytic takes up his pallet “and went out before them all” (Mk 2:12).

Bringing to dialogue with contemporary issues

Such a reception of this Markan pericopé brings the text into dialogue with contemporary issues of social division and isolation. The pericopé underscores the importance of ecclesial communion with others that focuses on Jesus as healer of doubts, physical torments, isolation and exclusion, and most significantly of sin (Mk 2:10f).

A hurdle for many people may be the healing miracle recounted. Certainly in Mark 2:1-12, the miracle moves the narrative from an argument over “blasphemy” to the point where everyone was “amazed and glorified God” (Mk 2:12). This is possibly why Mark seems to have placed what seems like originally two narratives into a single pericopé.9 The confronting issue is how we find relevance in this Markan episode in the current era, when we cannot confidently say that Christ will physically raise people from their paralytic division and isolation. When I next encounter crying school parents who tell me of children who will no longer even look at them; or next hear a grandparent cry over the phone because of nursing home isolation; or see students spending their breaks alone; or see people voicing their desperation at social exclusion — I cannot say that Jesus is on his way to perform a miracle. Mark was in the same position, since at his time of writing, Jesus had not walked the earth for years. Nevertheless, he not only retold the story, he wrote it down for his church community and for posterity out of his conviction of encounter with the Risen and Reigning Lord (Mark 16:9-16).10

Why, and what has this got to do with the issue of healing from the effects of forced isolation and social division and exclusion? Mark understood Jesus’ miracles as manifesting the reign of God which more fundamentally brought healing and wholeness to humanity, and, indeed, to the cosmos. For Mark, the end focus is not the miracles, but the Resurrection. The disciples are often depicted as being weak and ambivalent until the revelation of the Resurrection. The empty tomb; the Resurrected Christ; the memory of the Transfiguration; and grasping the enduring character of Jesus’ words are the grounds of ecclesial conviction (Mk 13:31).11

We may ask: What can Mark teach us about the healing of the distresses from forced isolation and social division and exclusion? Like those who carried the paralytic to Jesus, we seek to evoke hope beyond present oppressive circumstances — hope to envision the futures to which Jesus is leading us. He leads us ecclesially into communion with others who are likewise called to focus on this hope, rather than the causes of division and isolation. The key is that we are called with and for others to hope in the Resurrection; to move past our doubts and accusations like the scribes; to be open to all kinds and conditions of persons; to carry those who need carrying; and to allow ourselves to be carried when needed, as was the paralytic in the Markan pericopé. We may not be able to promise miraculous healings, but we can be present with people in the hope that we arrive at what the miracles of Christ demonstrated — namely, the coming of the reign of God (Mk 1:15). We may not be healed of our current sufferings, but by awaiting and anticipating the coming of Christ, we are no longer defined by our sufferings and isolation. They become pathways in a present and toward the end where Jesus leads us to healing, inclusion, and communion.

Conclusion

Manifesting the gospel in each era necessitates fresh envisioning, involving an enriching encounter through confronting the questions of the day. The underlying ecclesiality in the Markan pericopé can be understood as proposing responses that assist people who are isolated or excluded, helping them to join with others in carrying themselves and carrying others to encounters with the Risen Christ. Thus it is that we find and make pathways to esteem through healing and inclusion in ecclesial community. We “prepare ways” to love; and are enabled to “arise and walk,” to walk forward in the “kingdom of God.”

 

1. The quote is from a Greek version of Isaiah 40:3, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” and this motίf is repeated in Mk 8:27, 9:34, 10:32, 12:14, 15:21, 16:2.

2. John Paul II. Novo millennio ineunte. January 6, 2001.

3. From “empty,” kenόs in Greek; cf. Philippians 2:7.

4. For example, W. R. Telford, The Theology of the Gospel of Mark (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 9. ProQuest Ebook Central, ebookcentral.proquest.com. Created from acu on 2020-05-22 19:07:08; and Christopher M. Tuckett, Reading the New Testament: Methods of Interpretation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1987), 119.

5. Tuckett, Reading the New Testament, 123-126.

6. Telford, Theology of the Gospel of Mark, 219.

7. As suggested in R. Pickett, “Jesus and the Christian Gospels,” in Margaret Aymer, Cynthia Briggs, and David A. Sánchez, (Eds), Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament, (Lanham: Fortress Press, 2014), 90, 112f. Accessed May 20, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

8. Following the suggestion in Telford, Theology of the Gospel of Mark, 219.

9. The suggestion of conflation of narratives is made in Keith F. Nickle, The Synoptic Gospels: An Introduction (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 26f.

10. I am of course aware of the scholarly debates about the extended conclusion to Mark, but read this in the context of ecclesial understanding of canonical texts and the “canonical method” as argued by Brevard S. Childs, The New Testament as Canon (London: SCM Press, 1984), 94f; and as used by Joseph Ratzinger in Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (trans. A. J. Walker) (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), xviii-xix.

11. Cf. Ira Driggers, “God as Healer of Creation in the Gospel of Mark,” in Christopher W. Skinner and Matthew Ryan Hauge (Eds), Character Studies and the Gospel of Mark (London: T&T Clark, 2014: 81–106), 104.

  1. The quote is from a Greek version of Isaiah 40:3, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” and this motίf is repeated in Mk 8:27, 9:34, 10:32, 12:14, 15:21, 16:2.
  2. John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte (6 January 2001), 43.
  3. From “empty,” kenόs in Greek; cf. Philippians 2:7.
  4. For example, W. R. Telford, The Theology of the Gospel of Mark (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 9. ProQuest Ebook Central, ebookcentral.proquest.com. Created from acu on 2020-05-22 19:07:08; and Christopher M. Tuckett, Reading the New Testament: Methods of Interpretation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1987), 119.
  5. Tuckett, Reading the New Testament, 123-126.
  6. Telford, Theology of the Gospel of Mark, 219.
  7. As suggested in R. Pickett, “Jesus and the Christian Gospels,” in Margaret Aymer, Cynthia Briggs, and David A. Sánchez, (Eds), Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament, (Lanham: Fortress Press, 2014), 90, 112f. Accessed May 20, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.
  8. Following the suggestion in Telford, Theology of the Gospel of Mark, 219.
  9. The suggestion of conflation of narratives is made in Keith F. Nickle, The Synoptic Gospels: An Introduction (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 26f.
  10. I am of course aware of the scholarly debates about the extended conclusion to Mark, but read this in the context of ecclesial understanding of canonical texts and the “canonical method” as argued by Brevard S. Childs, The New Testament as Canon (London: SCM Press, 1984), 94f; and as used by Joseph Ratzinger in Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (trans. A. J. Walker) (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), xviii-xix.
  11. Cf. Ira Driggers, “God as Healer of Creation in the Gospel of Mark,” in Christopher W. Skinner and Matthew Ryan Hauge (Eds) Character Studies and the Gospel of Mark (London: T&T Clark, 2014: 81–106), 104.
Thomas A. Hunter About Thomas A. Hunter

Thomas Hunter is a Curriculum Coordinator and teacher of English and Religious Education at Loyola Senior High, a school in the Australian Diocese of Parramatta. He and his wife are proud new parents of their first child, Xavier.

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