The Daily Bread, 24th March 2020
Readings: Ezekiel 47:1-9,12; Psalm 45(46):2-3,5-6,8-9ab; John 5:1-3,5-16
It’s the words of the Psalm which today provide us with something strong to hold onto, to take our stand upon, to lift us up from the crippling or paralyzing effects of the current crisis, both personally and collectively. The Psalm affords us a righteous defiance not only of the coronavirus itself but of the fear of death and loss which it can instil:
“God is for us a refuge and strength,
a helper close at hand, in time of distress,
so we shall not fear though the earth should rock,
though the mountains fall into the depths of the sea.
The waters of a river give joy to God’s city,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within, it cannot be shaken;
God will help it at the dawning of the day.
The Lord of hosts is with us:
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
Come, consider the works of the Lord,
the redoubtable deeds he has done on the earth.”
This psalm is quite simply about God. Who God is for his people, i.e., anyone who trusts in him. We can take our stand on many good and useful things at our disposal: close relatives or friends, medicine, science, social organisation. But in the matter itself of life and death, of what life is and of what death is, the only possible and rational stand is God.
It was Jesus himself who separated Church and State: “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but to God what belongs to God.” Hence, to take your stand on God is not to reject or somehow demean the assistance which can come from the State. The only reason we render anything unto Caesar is so that Caesar will justly provide the services we need, especially in a crisis. But the human being him or herself is not Caesar’s. We belong to God. We must not let ourselves be so bamboozled by what Caesar does and can do for us that we lose sight of God. In the end, Caesar, too, belongs to God.
What the Psalm is telling us is that, in the face of natural catastrophes, no matter their power or devastation, “we shall not fear” for “God is for us a refuge and strength.” We are in a critical moment just now. In times of crisis, we are faced with ultimate truths and with definitive choices. It cannot be “business as usual.” This is not just a blip after which it’s “as you were.” Providence is allowing us to be shaken by “a time of distress” as the Psalm says. He is allowing “the earth to rock” in the sense that all our material, social and other securities are being challenged. He is giving us a time to find him again, to call upon his name, to seek him out. It’s as if he is crying out, “Come back to me with all your heart; don’t let fear keep us apart.” He wants us all again to rely on him and not on the things our hands have made or our minds have thought out.
In some ways, this crisis could be for many a time of deep spiritual renewal and of existential liberation. A time to press the “reset” button, to start again from God, to move forward with God. It is a time for our fractured bones to be reset. It is a time to ask the great questions of human life and answer them in the light of God. Who am I? What does my life mean? Why am I alive? What do suffering, love and death mean in themselves and for me? Can I own my life and my decisions of the past? Can I seek forgiveness and forgive? Who and what is God? Can I know him? Can I love him? Is Jesus Christ my life or just a concept?
In the Gospel reading of today, Jesus approaches a cripple or paralyzed man near a pool called Bethzatha in Jerusalem. Tradition had it that the water of the pool was moved by an angel now and again and whoever among the sick nearby got to the pool first would be cured. Jesus wastes no time. He asks an obvious yet challenging question of the cripple: “Do you want to be well again?” I think all of us would spontaneously and immediately answer that question, if we were the sick person, “Yes!” But if that question is addressed to the spiritual sickness of the soul, I wonder would we respond so spontaneously or immediately. Today, many people don’t like to think, and angrily reject any attempt to say to them, that they are committing sin. Later on, Jesus tells the cripple whom he has now cured, “Now you are well again, be sure not to sin any more, or something worse may happen to you.” In other words, Jesus is making us understand that the sickness of the soul is far worse in itself and in its consequences than any physical illness. It is for this that he died for us! And how is he not going to call us out on our sins when he knows they are killing us inside? And how can anyone sent by him fail to do likewise?
But if we will not admit our sin, we will not, indeed cannot, be cured of it. Jesus cannot forgive the one who says he has no sin because forgiveness can only flow into the heart that openly confesses its sin. This is the simple and plain teaching of the Gospel.
Going back to the cripple, his answer to Jesus’ question about wanting to be well again could conceivably be seen as evasive: “I have no-one to put me into the pool when the water is disturbed; and while I am still on the way, someone else gets there before me.” On one level, he is explaining why he has not yet been cured. On another, he actually might prefer to be crippled. He will get alms, he will not have to work, he will not have to shoulder any responsibility in society. And Jesus seems to intuit the reluctance in him to be cured because rather than engage in further conversation with him, and giving him the benefit of the doubt, he simply commands him: “Get up, pick up your sleeping-mat and walk.” And the man complies. But he doesn’t even thank Jesus. He simply “walks away” and goes and “tells tales” on Jesus to the Pharisees for curing him on a sabbath.
What the waters of Bethzatha did not do for this man, the words of Jesus did. Into the midst of this man’s physical and spiritual paralysis you could say that the cleansing waters of Jesus’ words flooded in. Like the Psalm above says, “the waters of a river give joy to God’s city, the holy place where the Most High dwells.” This man was bathed in Christ’s power and became Christ’s dwelling place.
And so it is for all of us, especially at this difficult time and perhaps especially for those who may have lost their way a bit in terms of letting God be real in their lives, the “refuge and strength and stronghold” of their lives. Jesus has come close to us in these extraordinary circumstances and is still standing nearby us in the midst of our troubles. “Do you want to be well again?” he asks. The way to make our feet firm and our legs agile so that we may walk again towards the new Jerusalem is to abjure our sins frankly and put our faith deeply, radically and sincerely in him. If we do that, and whether we live or die by the time this pandemic is over, it will, from the perspective of eternity, not really matter to us anymore. What will matter is Christ our Life in the city of the living God.