A few months ago, Seamus Heaney’s twelfth collection of poems, entitled “Human Chain”, was published, and with much acclaim. The central poem, “Miracle”, was directly inspired by a stroke he suffered a few years ago. Recalling the people who helped him receive prompt medical attention, he draws on the biblical imagery of the men who carried a paralysed man to Jesus to be healed. In a radio interview Heaney said, “I realised the guys that are hardly mentioned are central… without them no miracle would have happened.”
As with many of Heaney’s poems, there is much more being said than is immediately apparent.
“Be mindful of them as they stand and wait
For the burn of the paid-out ropes to cool,
Their slight light-headedness and incredulity
To pass, those ones who had known him all along.”
The only way some of us know that paid-out ropes burn our hands is because we have helped to lower a loved one’s body into a grave. It is a most solemn moment. The paralysed man’s friends, because of his illness, might have expected to have been his pall-bearers. But in this story when they lowered him into the presence of Jesus, it resulted in a remarkable outcome. They did so in faith, and it resulted in life and vitality that was both physical and spiritual.
Like Heaney’s poem, the story of the healing of the paralysed man operates on a number of levels. It is a wonderful story about the resourcefulness of the man’s friends in getting him in front of Jesus. They were men of faith. They really believed that God was at work through Jesus and that all their effort in getting their friend into the house where Jesus was present would be worthwhile. And it was.
But it is also a story about the remarkable insight which Jesus possessed with regard to human needs. Jesus penetrates beneath the surface of the man’s physical disability and addresses his underlying spiritual need. There were important issues in his life that ran deeper than his need for physical healing. He needed to be made right with God. He needed to be forgiven of his sin.
Jesus spoke a word of forgiveness to him and immediately he stood up, took what he had been lying on, and went home praising God.
The story also highlights how radically different Jesus was from the Jewish religious establishment. Luke records that the Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting in the house, watching Jesus and listening to him. They believed that the only way God forgave sins was within their system, through the temple and all the rituals of cleansing and sacrifices that went on there. If anyone could speak for God and declare to the people that God had forgiven their sins, then it was their priests, and particularly the high priest.
But Jesus cuts through all that traditional understanding and declares on his own authority, and in view of the faith of his friends, that this paralysed man was forgiven. He is claiming to speak for God in a way which challenges and undercuts the traditional channels of authority.
Jesus explains what he is doing by using a mysterious phrase, “the Son of Man” to describe himself. Jewish hearers would immediately recall a passage in the Old Testament, in the book of Daniel, where “one like a son of man” is brought before God and, after a time of great persecution, is given authority over the world. Many Jews understood that this person would be the Messiah, the one through whom God would set up his kingdom after Israel’s long suffering.
Not everyone would have understood what Jesus meant. His actions and words were part of God’s kingdom work and God would ultimately vindicate him. The healing of the paralysed man functions as a sign that Jesus’ authority was real and that he was Messiah.
No wonder the crowd was amazed. Luke says, “They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.” The word “remarkable” in the original language means things you wouldn’t normally expect. For those people who followed Jesus, there were plenty more remarkable things to come.
When people come to Jesus today, even with a grain of faith, the remarkable and unexpected can and does occur. People who are helpless and paralysed by sin know new life and new freedom. People who are guilty are forgiven. And people who are spiritually dead come to life. It can be so remarkable that for those who look on it results in what Heaney calls “slight light-headedness and incredulity”.