In the last article, I talked about the importance of locating faith practices in the context of the community of believers. The current article considers the narrative of the third sign in the Gospel of John and asks, how do we respond to a community that has become legalistic and oppressive, and worse stop caring for one another?
A simplistic or the popular reading of “John 5:1-15” would read like this: While visiting Jerusalem for a Jewish feast, Jesus encounters a disabled man. Strangely, this paralytic man had suffered for thirty-eight long years (John 5:1). Jesus asked the man if he wanted to get well.
The man expressed his inability to enter the water because he had no one to help him get to the pool first. And even if he did try to make it on his own, the others almost always got ahead.
Jesus tells him to pick up his mat and walk; The man was instantly cured and he was able to walk and carry the mat. Interestingly, this healing takes place on the Sabbath – a day of Rest.
The Jews persecute Jesus because of this healing on the Sabbath. Jesus’s response: “My Father is still working, and I also am working” (John 5:17) makes the Jews even more determined to kill him.
If you engage in a contextual reading of the text and identify the literary device employed, you may find a new meaning in the text.
Jewish society is communitarian as well. They would love and care for each other. But, in this case, it appears that the community had stopped caring for the sick or disabled.
The ‘disabled’ man belonged to a society that despised the lame/disabled (Keener 2003). The Greek term astheneia (ἀσθενείᾳ) can be translated as ill, sick, or invalid. It can also be read as referring to the blind, lame, and paralyzed (v3).
During that time, there was a popular belief that an angel would occasionally stir the water, and whoever gets to the water first would get healed (Morris 1971). The health condition of the disabled man suggests that he needed help to move around. Sadly, the paralytic man had no one to take him to the water (v8)!
Not only that, it is likely that they were also using him for their benefit. It was not uncommon for the blind, lame, and paralyzed to beg in places frequented by people. It is likely that someone brought him near the pool to beg for money.
Interestingly, Jesus chose to heal the sick man who has been completely neglected by his family and community. Jesus’ action challenged the community that had stopped caring for the sick or disabled.
The Lord of Rest
When the sick man got healed, there was no expression of wonder in the community. Instead, the Jews – the opponents of Jesus – questioned the sick man why he was carrying a mat on Sabbath. The conversation between the Jews and the sick man invites further scrutiny.
The Jewish leaders told him, “It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” The violation of the Sabbath results in a death sentence (Keener 2003). Therefore, The paralytic man could be sentenced to death for merely ‘carrying the mat’.
The man was unsure of who healed him. Fearing for his life, the man pointed to Jesus – the person who healed him. At the surface level, this appears to be an ungrateful act. Popular preaching has condemned the paralytic man and criticized him for being ungrateful to Jesus.
However, if we consider Johannine use of irony (saying the opposite of what one means to make a point) as a literary device, then, the man’s response to the Jews can be understood as choosing life over death. Rather than succumbing to the death sentence of the Jews, he opted for life.
It was Sabbath. But, Jesus chose to heal on Sabbath. Jesus was not restricted by religious traditions. He chose to care for the neglected. In doing so, he showed himself as the life-giver. John presents Jesus as someone who gives life because he is ‘the Lord of the Sabbath- ‘the Lord of Rest’ (recovery and remaking).
Faith communities can become legalistic and oppressive. Here, the religious leaders were concerned about upholding their tradition instead of caring for the sick man. They began to persecute Jesus instead of celebrating him. They hurled death threats instead of celebrating the affirmation of life.
However, we need to learn from Jesus’ example in caring for a sick man neglected by his community. He demonstrates care for the other and a radical self-giving of oneself, even if it means overstepping traditional boundaries. We should not be bound by traditions. Rather, we need to affirm life and use the ‘life-affirming’ principle as the lens to view religious traditions. Jesus invites us to care for one another. He calls us to challenge legalistic and oppressive structures/traditions that do not affirm life. He is the Lord of Rest (and Recovery). He is the Lord of making all things new. He is the Lord of all.