In a favorite Sunday school Bible story, with great craft possibilities, some enterprising characters let their paralyzed friend down through the roof to be healed by Jesus in Mark 2:1-12, the text we are studying for Sunday, January 17. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on the text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Matthew and Luke tell this story, too (Matthew 9:1-8; Luke 5:17-26), but we are reading it in Mark’s gospel, where it comes up very early in the story, and is one of the longer stories in the gospel so far. It’s also the second mention of “the scribes,” and the first one where their presence and thoughts are recorded, and we realize there is going to be some conflict between these people and Jesus.
Mark’s gospel is the one where everything happens “immediately,” there is a “messianic secret” about who Jesus really is, and the stress falls on Jesus’s authority and identity, as well as whether those are recognized and accepted, and by whom.
At this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is an enigmatic figure who has burst on the scene out of nowhere, been baptized by John in the Jordan, been driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit and tempted, and then seems to have taken up where John left off, coming to Galilee and proclaiming repentance and the imminence of the Kingdom of God.
He’s already so famous that he can’t go into the synagogue in a town, but has to do his teaching out in the countryside; we see what kind of crowds he draws in this story.
There’s a lot of commentary on what kind of roof this house would have had to allow the events in the story. Ferrell Jenkins has some pictures, while Jerome Murphy-O-Connor has an article at Bible Odyssey about whose house it might have been, along with some interesting information about the fishing business that might have been nice to know last week. For some reason commentators often mention that no, the able-bodied friends couldn’t have taken the roof apart without attracting the attention of the people in the room below. It’s not clear the text suggests they did, though, just because Mark leaves out the part of the story where everyone in the room was being showered with roofing debris and looked up and said “What the heck is going on up there??”
This probably means we should imagine this event as even more remarkable and memorable in real life than we might already.
According to Lawrence M. Wills (Jewish Annotated New Testament), the scribes “were literate people who handled texts and accounts, and were also interpreters of the Law. They existed both at the local level in the villages of Galilee and at the highest levels of Jerusalem society.” I assume they charged for this. We have forgotten what it means to live in a society where text is important, but almost everyone is illiterate. Thank God, and our teachers.
Jesus repeatedly refers to himself as the “Son of Man” in the gospels. Maybe this title emphasizes his humanity. Maybe it alludes to his divinity and his eschatological importance (see Daniel 7:13). Or, both.
This text is in the lectionary as the gospel for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany. That means it comes up fairly regularly in church, but not as often as you might think, since that Seventh Sunday after Epiphany has a tendency to be superseded by Lent – as will happen this year. [I do not know precisely how often that happens. If you do, please feel free to share!]
CLOSER READING: Verse 3 doesn’t specify how many people bring the paralyzed man, just that four of them carried him. It could have been a larger group. That would have helped when it came to taking off the roof.
The words Mark uses in verse 4 are unusual, maybe because this kind of thing doesn’t happen often. The word translated “removed” refers very specifically to taking off a roof. The word translated “dug through” carries the sense of “gouging” or “plucking out” – it’s used one other time in the NT, in Galatians 4:15, btw.
I am a little perplexed as to why the translators have Jesus saying “son” to the man when he could just as easily have said “child.” Or rather, he says “teknon.” One Greek word, two English words with two slightly different senses it seems to me, but maybe I’m wrong. Or maybe the translators like “son” here because of the roofing crew.
Verses 5-10 are, arguably, the meat of this story – concerning sin, forgiveness, and authority. They raise a lot of questions. Did Jesus know what the man’s sins were? What were they? If we knew them, too, what would we think about this? [It’s not lost on me that Capernaum is a small town, and if it’s anything like the small town where I live, a lot of the people in that room would have been familiar with that man’s sins.]
It may be worth noticing that the man is not said to have repented of any sins. This doesn’t necessarily mean he hasn’t. His repentance might be like the roofing debris.
We can’t tell from the text whether Jesus is reading the scribes’ minds, or simply exercising good intuition. What he “knew in his spirit” might be compatible with either. This is typical Mark, actually, leaving us to decide for ourselves what we think is happening here.
Verse 9 definitely feels like a trick question to me. We might also wonder, here, why Jesus is making the connection between sins and paralysis, and which is more on the man’s mind, or should be, forgiveness or restoration.
Jesus himself interprets the healing as a sign of his even greater authority. [At least – I interpret the authority to forgive sins as even greater than the authority to heal. But maybe that’s not obvious, either.]
Authority is different from power, even in Greek, where it seems to have the meaning of “power to …” incorporated in it, and maybe sometimes predominating. I say this with a little bit of annoyance, because as a former sociology major I am STRONGLY committed to the principle that “authority” and “power” are NOT synonyms [e.g., Satan has power, God has authority, on top of power], and are NOT be used interchangeably, especially not by the authors of published curriculum. Just saying. But again, this could be mostly 21st century bias speaking.
It seems a little curious that Jesus tells the man to go home. But the man does it.