The Bible means well, of course. The trouble with the Bible, though, is that it is so—“biblical.” The wording has a formal sound to it, repeating many of the same kinds of phrases over and over--(in the gospels for instance) on another occasion, that day in the evening, he also said to them.
These are not stories the way we are used to them. The place names are from a region distant from us and unfamiliar. While the names are quite specific—Capernaum, Jericho, Judea, Trans-Jordan, the Mount of Olives, etc.—the actions are not specific to the locations, it could be happening anywhere. The names of personages on the other hand we recognize—David, Simon, Bartholomew, sometimes a Zacchaeus. But they don’t appear to us as very rounded or three-dimensional, more like stock characters in a melodrama who with any name could perform the same function in the story.
Naturally, there is a lot of God-talk, which can be off-putting when God appears as character himself—there, see? I said “himself,” as if God were a person.
On top of all this, we have heard the same passages over such a long time, they have worn a groove in our brains into which our mental steps unreflectively falls.
To remedy this, there have been many translations in the last 100 years, whose goal is to render the text accurately and also in modern or contemporary rhetoric to facilitate comprehension. Some have gone down an outright colloquial road, like the Good News bible or The Message by Eugene Petersen—helpful but still not enough to break through.
Do any of these translations get us any closer to Jesus? How does one get better acquainted with Jesus? More to the point, how does somebody fall in love with Jesus? Yes, why not fall in love with Jesus, or at least try to meet him again as if for that first, startling time (to use Marcus Borg’s famous phrase)?
I have two tips for you. First, you do the same thing you would do if you wanted to get to know somebody you already know better, like, say, your own spouse, a friend, a parent, a co-worker, your minister. And that is: you have to spend more time with her or him, carve out some space and devote yourself to the task intentionally—like with your grandchildren. That would be true of getting to know Jesus, too—it is a matter of time.
Second, look for the unusual detail, for the sudden true-to-life phrasing that jumps out of the formality and staginess of the 1st century rhetoric. There are many such details in the Bible, which we might miss while cruising in our sleepy channel. These unusual features give life and credibility to the stories.
For instance, today’s scripture lesson from the 2nd chapter of Mark contains a case in point.
I’m using the translation by Stephen Mitchell—an unauthorized, unecclesiastical, nonacademic genius who has also translated the Book of Psalms, Job, the Tao te Ching. We are early in the ministry of Jesus when he has determined to set out, teaching and healing, into the countryside around Capernaum where it seems Jesus has set up a kind of home base. We learn that this junket has had some good effect because when he returns to Capernaum, word of this has gone out and a crowd has gathered at his house (his own home?). And such a crowd it was—the house was absolutely full and the entry blocked with people. But someone’s need to see Jesus in person was so great that something had to be done to get around the crush—four men had a paralytic on a stretcher—and what do they do, they get up on the roof, probably a low flat thatched roof, and opened up enough space to get the paralytic through and deposit him at Jesus’ feet.
Jesus was moved because “he saw how deeply they trusted him, and he saw plainly what was going on. In Mitchell’s phrasing, we are helped to see the true issue—they needed to be closer to him and went to extraordinary pains to make this happen, and this is the first unique detail.
Mitchell omits some other detail in order for us to see this one clearly. We see the urgency, the pathos of the paralyzed man, the determination of his friends, the conviction that this was worth trying to pull off—altogether an unavoidable and unforgettable snapshot. It is well that Mitchell leaves out one particular detail, because it sets off a new set of issues--when Jesus says to the paralytic “your sins are forgiven.” I think Mitchell wants us to see not so much the source of the miracle (the forgiveness), as for us to focus on the medium of the miracle: taking the pallet under his arm and the man walking.
The words reported of Jesus are arresting, the abruptness of the command and the simple clarity of it contain worlds of wonder because it seems to have given the paralytic agency, given him his proper role in his recovery. The love that brought this man to Jesus, the love he had for Jesus, is the love that healed him. It was as if Jesus had said, pick up what ails you and be well.
Could he have just been saying, I healed you, now you carry on? No way. All the Bible gives us is the merest skeleton of a story, without any explanation, leaving us to make the connections for ourselves. The economy of the story forces our mental wheels to turn—referring to that pallet, so meaningful in what it betokens about that man’s prior life. These details should jump out at you—four men carrying a stretcher up onto the roof (whoa Nelly!), breaking a hole in the roof to let the stretcher down (wait a minute now, where’d they get the big idea!), Jesus’ amazement at their trust in him (this man has a heart), Jesus’ charge to take up your pallet and walk (OK now really!). A charged atmosphere, a supercharged interaction, all of it witnessed by the crowd among which numbered skeptics and enemies.
Then finally, allow yourself to just imagine which of these characters you are—the stretcher bearers, onlooker, the paralytic, perhaps Jesus, if that doesn’t seem impious. The curious thing about the Bible is that it has a way of casting you in the various roles. Now imagine that Jesus is speaking to you when he is speaking to someone in the story—he addresses the skeptics and the enemies, he addresses the paralytic—but he is always and everywhere speaking to you. Absorbed in the action as we read the story, we may completely overlook that at every turn, we are being addressed by Jesus—no wonder people fall in love with Jesus.
Jesus could be addressing us as individuals, and I’ll let you sort out what particular paralysis you might be suffering from in your life, or it could be us as a church. Now you know where I’m going! It is to you, Eliot Church, that Jesus is saying, here and now, Take up your pallet and walk. I bring this scripture to you at this particular time because you have reached a milestone, let me say a watershed moment, with the completion of one round of Small Group Sessions. Now we have reached a moment of Truth, the truth involving the facts of our circumstances, the truth being a sober assessment of the paralytic state in which we are caught.
There is a connection between trust and agency—the point at which they touch is the human imagination, when we see past our present state of arrested development into a future we have never experienced before. I wonder how the paralytic’s life unfolded from there. . .and how will ours?
I just want to say at this juncture: don’t resist—I perceive some of you tensing up like you do in the dentist’s office—don’t resist and relax! Give yourself into the love of Christ—much has been taken away (we don’t even know how much it will finally be yet), but even more will replace it.
Yes, the Bible means well, it expresses what it means very well. God speaks to us in the Bible and invites us into a relationship with Jesus, a true man with a heart, who sees and accepts us for who we are, sees this one little congregation with the usual preoccupations. And to us, Christ is saying, take up your pallet and walk.
You can fall in love with Jesus by enacting your home liturgy like I said a week ago. Take the first step today, and it might turn into a good practice for Thanksgiving and Advent, as follows: we tell stories at the dinner table, don’t we? How about telling this morning’s story about Jesus, and make it a game, someone starts it, the next person adds a little and the next person adds more, at some point someone finishes it. Prepare by printing out the text as failsafe. Write the title of the story on a card folded in half and placed at the center of the table with a candle. Jesus will be at table with you.
Maybe among people who have known each other so long you will feel shy or a little foolish. Nevermind! Why not become a fool for Christ and see what falling in love with Jesus feels like.