Tuesday of the 4th Week of Lent
“Wherever the river flows… and flowing into the sea, it makes its waters wholesome… they will bear new fruit every month, because this water comes from the sanctuary.“
Something struck me reading the words spoken by the ill man who laid near the pool of Bethesda at the Sheep Gate. I felt uneasy hearing his words. We are told he had been ill for 38 years and never once had been able to make his way down to the pool on his own, neither did anyone help him. We are not told if he was a paralytic, so we can’t be sure. Neither do we know how he managed to get there in the first place. But we do know that he did not give a straight ‘Yes’ response to Jesus’ question “Do you want to be well?”. Instead he sounded a lot more like a complainer — “I have no one to put me into the pool…. while I am on my way, someone else gets down there before me…”
Do we know someone who speaks like this? Or maybe this might be an internal refrain which is all too familiar.
There are two main characters I’d like to ponder in today’s readings. The long-suffering man and Jesus, the one chosen to suffer.
Let’s start with the long-suffering man. To be ill for 38 years, in those days, would probably mean he was definitely beyond middle age. But 38 could just be a metaphor for a really long time. There is something about this man’s speech and actions that reveals to us his character:
- He was passive and reliant. He waited for others to bring him to the healing waters, time and time again. (5:7)
- He complained. He lamented that others went before him and were healed. (5:7)
- He blamed. When he was confronted by the Jews about working on the Sabbath, he pointed at Jesus and said ‘he told me to do it’ even though clearly, he benefitted from this healing. (5:10-13)
- He was a serial sinner. Jesus later confronted him in the temple and told him “Look, you are well; do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may happen to you.” (5:14)
- He was ungrateful and a betrayer. Even after being healed and told sin not again, he went to on to offer Jesus’ identity to the religious leaders who were clearly out on a witch hunt. (5:15)
- He was still weak and unrepentant. When Jesus told him not to sin again and warns him that failing so could bring worse mishaps to him, we never hear the man’s response. Instead, he reported Jesus to the authorities. (5:15).
What a list! I don’t think I am any holier than him. I can certainly relate to being long-afflicted with persistent challenges to the point of self-pity. I may have repented repeatedly of many sins, but I definitely find fresh (or stale) sinful habits waiting to be purged. I sometimes wish my life were ‘easier’ like that of others. I do wonder whether God forgot about me and had left me by the side of the pool to focus on healing everyone else! When is it my turn? Perhaps, we can all relate in some way to these fleeting or longstanding temptations to doubt God’s goodness in our lives. Do you?
Yet, and this is a big one, we have got to really ponder this person of Jesus who is Christ. The One chosen to suffer for us. Knowing full well the lengthy sufferings/sins of this sick man, Jesus did not withhold speaking words of healing unto him! Perhaps with the above exposition, the man now seems quite unworthy, and an ingrate. So why would Jesus not bat an eyelid, not admonish him first, before saying “Rise, take up your mat, and walk”?
All of this is grace! And it is only by the grace of God that Jesus forgave the man’s sins and healed him of his physical illness. But we know, it is very likely that the man’s physical infirmities were an outcome of his interior failings. Only later, we are told that Jesus comes back to find the man, to warn him and remind him of the necessity to truly repent, now that he has witnessed the healing power of God’s grace. Full and unmerited grace.
Jesus then revisits the healed man to caution and minister to his interior sins, perhaps many. Notice, he heals both the physical and spiritual sickness. But he does not warn the man to keep this exchange secret, as he had done before with the blind man that he cured (Mk 8:22-26). Certainly Christ is all-knowing, and he knew this man would later betray him and reveal his identity. But Jesus chose not to preemptively chastise him. Our gracious and loving God who bestows upon us free will, lets us choose how we might respond. He never coerces or threatens.
With our human understanding, this is truly wasteful grace, isn’t it? Especially when we have this well-documented scapegoat of a man to pin ungratefulness and unrepentance on? Except, our Heavenly Father is truly prodigious — He gives abundantly and He loves us in spite of our truly weak dispositions.
His grace and mercy is ever-flowing and overflowing as depicted in the first reading of Ezekiel.
“He measured off another thousand;
it was now a river which I could not cross;
the stream had swollen and was now deep water,
a river impossible to cross.
Wherever the river flows,
all living creatures teeming in it will live.
Fish will be very plentiful,
for wherever the water goes it brings health, and life teems wherever the river flows.
Along the river, on either bank, will grow every kind of fruit tree with leaves that never wither and fruit that never fails;
they will bear new fruit every month,
because this water comes from the sanctuary.”
Like the Bethesda pool of healing and the sanctuary waters from the idealized heavenly temple (Ez 47:1-9, 12), we must firstly recognise the true source of eternal healing — Christ, the only Son of God. God’s abundant mercy is awaiting our ‘Yes’. The key question we must inevitably answer is, “Do you want to be well?”
(Today’s OXYGEN by Debbie Loo)
Prayer: Lord, we want to be healed. A clean heart create for me, O God; give me back the joy of your salvation!
Thanksgiving: Thank you for being the Divine Healer of our lives, Jesus.
Debbie — you’ve given us so much to ponder. Thank you for your insight.