John 5:1-9 (NRSV)
Jesus Heals On The Sabbath
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3 In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” 8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a sabbath. 10 So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, “It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” 11 But he answered them, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’” 12 They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take it up and walk’?” 13 Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. 14 Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” 15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. 16 Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” 18 For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.
The lectionary reading for this week shows us Jesus in Jerusalem after an unknown festival. He arrives at a pool called Bethzatha, where invalids lay. Now, in the time of Jesus, illness was often blamed on sin, either that person had sinned, or their parents. (See John 9:2) ) The sick and the suffering came to this pool because the belief at the time was that an angel would come and stir the waters and whoever was first in the pool when the waters moved would be healed.
So Jesus comes, and sees a man who has been lying there for a long time. This is clearly an ill man seeking healing, but Jesus asks ‘Do you want to be made well?’ Initially this seems like a stupid question. of course he wants to be made well. But Jesus is neither being stupid nor offensive. He is intentionally inviting the man into the process.
Initially I felt sympathy for this man. What was wrong with him? What is his ailment? The passage tells us that people at this pool are blind, lame, and paralyzed … but this man he describes how no one will carry him and people stand before him when he makes his way down, so he is in some way capable of moving himself. In other passages the author describes the specific condition, but not here, why? I think it’s because his condition is not what matters in this passage … he is surrounded by people who could potentially be sicker or not as sick as him. His reaction is what I find interesting.
So Jesus asks the man if he wants to be healed, and what we should expect is a resounding ‘Yes!!’ That is exactly why he is at this pool right? Instead the man complains. ‘I have no one to put me into the pool...someone else steps ahead of me.’ Instead of describing what is wrong with him or asking for help, he describes why he is still ill. When you consider that, in this time, people believed they were sick because of sin, I find this a fascinating reaction. Instead of asking for help he is almost complaining about how people around him have not done enough to help him, in a society that believes he deserves what he is getting.
So essentially when he is offered healing, he responds through blaming those around him. In his mind, his healing is their responsibility, not his. Is it possible that this mentality is what has kept him there for 38 years?
How often are we offered something good and are so focused on what has happened in the past that we cannot see it? Our focus on who is at fault for what has happened to us often blocks us from accepting the help we need to move on.
Still, Jesus turns to the man and says “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”, and the man does. I can’t help but imagine him just walking away with his mat, and wonder, where is his ‘thank you’? Where is his amazement? Why did Jesus pick this man?
Our reading ends with ‘Now that day was a sabbath’ but this is not the end of the story. This line drives the story forward and could almost be taken as a warning for what is about to happen.
It is against the law to carry your mat on the sabbath. If something as simple as that is forbidden, you can imagine how the Pharisees would feel about healing on a sabbath?
When the man leaves, he is approached by Jewish leaders who question him about carrying his mat. Initially the man can’t answer because he doesn’t know, but later meets Jesus again at the temple. Jesus warns the man to stop sinning or something worse than his original illness could happen. The man’s response?
Repentance? Not that either.
Instead, he goes straight to the Jewish leaders and tells them who healed him. He basically rats on Jesus. He feeds the anger and ammunition of those looking to persecute his healer. He has been healed … but he hasn’t changed.
When Jesus is questioned about why he was working on the sabbath his response is ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’
I can’t help but feel that Jesus is intentionally provoking them. Not only is he working on a sabbath, but now he is calling God his Father. Immediately, I begin to imagine a toddler who is told not to do something … they immediately look you in the eye, smirk, and do it anyway.
I don’t think Jesus did anything without purpose. He healed a man who seems so undeserving, on a sabbath, and then refuses to hide.
He is challenging us to look at our attitudes and how we see rules.
How often do we focus on what wrong has been done to us instead of actively seeking a way for restoration?
And when someone else is restored … how often do we decide they must do things in a different way?
I think as Christians we can often be worst for this. Without conformity, there are questions, and often we’re not ready to answer those questions, or are afraid they will challenge our own faith.
But Jesus did everything through questions, and put people above the law every time. The laws were created to help us not to hurt us.
So this week as we approach our own sabbath, ask yourself … what absolutes have you created in your head? Do they bring about goodness for all? Or do they trap us in a system that is designed to keep us from our full potential? Are you ready to intentionally participate in the transformation Jesus is inviting you to? Or is that someone else’s job?
Christina is a music and religious education teacher who was recently made chaplain in East Glendalough School in county Wicklow. She is currently working on an MA in Chaplaincy Studies at Dublin City University in between episodes of The Good Place and the Great British Bake Off.