Clinical Seminars with Luke the Physician: 3. The healing of a paralysed man

Can spiritual healing be sometimes just as necessary as mending physical ailments?

One day as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law, who had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem, were sitting there.  And the power of the Lord was present for him to heal the sick.  Some men came carrying a paralytic on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus.  When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.  When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”

The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts?  Which is easier: to say ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?  But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins….”  He said to the paralysed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”  Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God.  Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God.  They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.”

Luke 5:17-26

Luke places this dramatic incident immediately after the healing of the leprosy victim. It occurred early on in Jesus’s teaching ministry, when news about this remarkable new rabbi was spreading throughout Galilee and the rest of Palestine. Luke stresses that there were a large number of professional religious people in the audience, and this is the first time he refers to the Pharisees in his narrative. They were a small (numbering about 6000 in all) but important social group in First Century Israel. They were the synagogue teachers, self-appointed guardians of the Torah, the Old Testament Law, and committed to meticulous observance of the 613 specific commands that they had found in the Torah. They were deeply conservative and traditionalist in their outlook and it’s hardly surprising that they were suspicious of this radical new rabbi who seemed to pose a threat to their powerful position. Now they had come to listen to his teaching and make up their minds about him. 

The rest of the crowd, packed into the house that Jesus was visiting, had not come for theological insights or disputation. Most of them were there because of the possibility of some excitement, preferably a dramatic healing miracle. And they were not going to be disappointed. As Luke puts it cryptically, “The power of the Lord was (literally) “in him for healing”. The setting is painted dramatically with a minimum of words. The packed and fascinated crowd, the hostile Pharisees, Jesus in the middle teaching. Suddenly, a mysterious cracking noise, and, before the crowd’s startled gaze, a hole appears in the roof! Through the flat clay roof appear several sweating figures holding a mat with an obviously paralysed man, who is deposited unceremoniously at Jesus’ feet, right in centre stage. The flow of teaching is interrupted, a dramatic hush descends. You can almost hear the suspense. Everyone is on tiptoe waiting to see what on earth is going to happen next. Will Jesus ignore the paralysed man? Will he lose his temper at this rude disruption of his teaching ministry? Perhaps this is the moment for a demonstration of the spectacular healing power they have all heard about.

In full view of the crowd, Jesus turns to the man and says, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” Consternation! I suspect most of the crowd are disappointed. This seems tame stuff, as miracles go. The man is still lying on his mat. To the religious professionals however this is not merely a disappointment, this is blasphemy. To claim to heal people is one thing – unconventional, unorthodox, but hardly to be condemned out of hand. To claim to forgive sins however was completely beyond the pale. The professional theologians knew the hidden implication to which many of the crowd were oblivious. By claiming the ability to forgive sins Jesus was claiming to be equal to God himself. In the teaching of the Pharisees, to make yourself equal with God was the greatest evil that any human being was capable of. No wonder they were both outraged and secretly delighted at the same time. This dangerous and heretical new rabbi was trapped by his own words, public words, words that had been uttered in front of many witnesses.

Jesus turns to the Pharisees and disconcertingly reveals that he knows their thoughts only too well. Yes, he agrees, the claim to forgive sins is far more wide-ranging in its implications than physical healing. But anyone can claim to forgive sins. Where is the proof that Jesus really has this authority, that he is who he claims to be? Directly addressing the Pharisees, Jesus says in effect, “Now watch, because this is the proof…”, then turns to the paralysed man and commands him to stand. Instantaneously the man stands, and then, in demonstration of complete recovery of his motor power and coordination, he stoops, picks up his mat and walks out of the house, shouting his praises to God. 

Luke describes the reaction of the crowd in literal Greek as “bewilderment” and “fear”. It is the reaction of those who came hoping to see a spectacle, but went home conscious that God himself was in their midst. The miracle was not just proof that Jesus cared about the paralysed man. It was proof that this new man was someone altogether greater than they could have imagined. 

Healing has always been popular – it will always attract the crowds. The popularity of medical TV documentaries are a modern demonstration that the crowds of the twenty first century global village are not much different from the biblical crowds of Galilee and Jerusalem. Of course, the more spectacular the healing “miracle” is, the better. Open-heart surgery or paediatric intensive care is a better bet for prime-time television than psychogeriatrics! As health professionals, if we concentrate on our success stories we are bound to be popular. Health and physical healing are a particular preoccupation of our culture.

And part of the popularity of medical miracles in our culture is because physical healing fits in with the materialistic assumptions and preoccupations of our culture. After all, if the material and physical realities of life are the most significant part of our existence, then getting and maintaining physical health is of prime importance. And in the same vein it’s not surprising that disease and disability are often seen as the most threatening and disastrous things that can happen to a person. Small wonder, then, that health care is seen as such an important and significant aspect of modern society. It’s not surprising too that the high-priests of technological medicine have replaced the priests of organised religion. When it comes to prime-time television, a bishop has little popular appeal compared with a “top consultant” and at a local community level the GP has replaced the vicar as the recognised authority on pastoral care. 

So our work as health professionals will always be popular, and its importance and significance will always be understood by the masses. This is not necessarily a bad thing. As modern-day healers we have a natural credibility in our culture. It may give us opportunities to communicate to and even influence our culture, which many professional theologians and Christian communicators don’t have. But we must beware of adopting the materialistic assumptions of our age and of our profession. 

What Luke’s case history tells us is that disease is more than just the outward and the physical. Yes, the man was paralysed. He knew that. His friends knew it. The crowd could see it. But to Jesus, his physical paralysis was not the whole story. The spiritual dimension of sin and forgiveness could not be ignored. In the perspective of the incarnate Son of God, unforgiven sin was in reality a greater blight in this man’s life than the obvious and debilitating paralysis. This was the greater disease. So by addressing the spiritual disease first, Jesus challenged the physical assumptions of the crowd, and of the patient himself.

Of course Jesus brought physical healing as well as spiritual healing. The spiritual and the physical healing were really two sides of the same coin. The miraculous physical transformation was a demonstration of an equally miraculous inward renewal. It is the connection between the inner spiritual and the outer physical aspects of healing which Luke is keen to stress. Jesus’ approach to healing was integrated. He was concerned to heal the whole person, physical, psychological, relational and spiritual. In the healing miracles that Luke the physician recorded in his Gospel, he was at pains to integrate these different aspects, showing that they were all part of a wider reality of Jesus’ ministry. But in this particular story, Jesus took care to point out it was the spiritual disease which was more significant. To heal the man’s paralysis without healing his inner disease was not sufficient.

This is not a popular message for our materialistic culture. As long as we concentrate on physical healing we will fit in with what our culture expects. We will be the ‘heroes’ that the coronavirus pandemic has brought to public attention and accolade. If we dare to suggest however, like Jesus, that spiritual disease can be as significant as physical paralysis, then we risk unpopularity, and even outrage. But if we are to be true followers of our Lord we must attempt to practise integrated healing, however difficult this may be in our modern hospitals, in our professional structures and in our secular health service. We must try to keep together what our materialistic secular culture wants to separate. Of course as paid employees in the National Health Service we must not abuse our position of trust to concentrate on our patients’ spiritual needs at the expense of their physical ones. But we cannot ignore their spiritual needs either. There is a profound, if complex, connection between the inner spiritual and the outer physical aspects of disease and healing. As followers of Jesus we need to be concerned about both, whatever the consequences will be for our popularity or our professional reputations. 

Questions for discussion

  1. Give some modern day examples of how the physical and spiritual aspects of disease can interact. How can physical and spiritual healing be brought together in these modern day cases?
  2. Give some practical illustrations of the obstacles our secular healthcare systems place in the way of caring which integrates the physical and spiritual. What can we do to improve the situation?
  3. What practical steps can we take to integrate physical and spiritual healing in our own professional practice?
  4. In what other incidents did Jesus’s healing ministry illustrate the integration of physical and spiritual healing?

Click here to read the next Bible study, on the healing miracles of Jesus (Luke 7:18-23), or find all the studies here.

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