Sunday of the Paralytic: The Plague of Lonliness
Fr. Luke A. Veronis
Christos Anesti! Christ is Risen!
Someone once asked a famous doctor, “What is the most devastating disease among people today.” He immediately replied, “Loneliness. The longer I practice medicine, the surer I am that no condition is so painful and universal as loneliness.”
Mother Teresa often said the same thing about the poverty she saw worldwide. “In Calcutta, we see terribly desperate situations of poverty, people literally dying on the streets. Yet this poverty, if we give them a little rice and food, can easily be overcome. In the developed West, however, the poverty is much greater and more difficult to care for. It is often not material poverty, but spiritual poverty. People are suffering and alone. They feel abandoned by their family and friends. They feel as if they have no one. This is the greatest poverty.”
In today’s gospel lesson, we hear the cry of such a desperate and lonely person – a man, who for 38 years has suffered from paralysis. Each day he lived in an area where other invalids laid – the blind, lame and paralyzed. Even though many other sufferers surrounded him, he felt totally alone.
When Jesus saw the man, he had compassion on him, and asked, “Do you want to be made well?” On one hand, it seems like such a silly question to ask someone who has suffered for 38 years. Wouldn’t it be obvious that he wants to be made well?
Yet, our Lord asks the question for two reasons. First of all, Christ wants to test the man’s desire for help, to see if he could find any spark of hope in his soul. Is there still a little faith within the man, which our Lord could turn into a flame, and thus, perform a miracle?
In any unfortunate situation, there always exists the danger that suffering and difficulties can cause a person to become bitter, angry and worst of all, full of despair. Christ can help only those who are open to His help. An extremely important concept within our Orthodox theology is the idea of synergy – God working together with man.
Yes, God wants all people to be saved, and enter into an intimate, living, dynamic relationship with Him. God is always near us, knocking on the door of our hearts, and desiring to enter within. Yet, he loves us so much, He respects our freedom. We are free to choose to welcome Him, to accept Him, to dwell with Him forever, but also we are free to ignore Him, reject Him, and basically live apart from Him.
It depends on us, not on Him! He is always ready to dwell with us and help us IF AND when we are willing to work together with Him. With this idea in mind, Jesus asks the paralyzed man, “Do you want to be made well?”
And the man answers, “Lord, I have no one to help me. Whenever the angel of God comes down and stirs up the water, no one will help put me into the pool.”
This brings us to the second reason why Jesus asked the man “Do you want to be healed?”. Christ wanted the paralytic to realize that his main problem wasn’t his physical illness, but his loneliness. “Lord,” the man confessed, “I have no one to help me.”
These simple words express a terrible distortion of our original calling as human beings. We all were created in the image and likeness of our Triune God – a Trinity and Community of Love. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three persons as ONE – in a constant and everlasting communion of love with one another.
The first man and woman were also called to be communal beings – creating communities of love for one another and all people. In a healthy setting, according to God, we all should be looking out for one another, caring for one another, never feeling isolated, all alone, and without anyone. Even if one encounters an unexpected illness, or faces a terrible tragedy, the community of love which surrounds them should overwhelm them with love so that no situation ever appears desperate or hopeless!
For someone to admit, like the paralytic in today’s Gospel, that they have no one to help them, they are revealing that they have fallen away from the original intent of God. This man’s desperation comes from the fact that he has no friends, he has no one who cares about him, he has no one who is sincerely interested in him.
This is the plague of loneliness, and one of the greatest contemporary diseases of our technological age! How many of us know people who have fallen into despair because of loneliness? How many of us even notice those in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, in the old age homes, and in our communities, who have nobody to love them, nobody to care for them, and nobody to show interest in them?
In the Gospel lesson, the paralytic admitted that he was alone, BUT he had not fallen into total despair yet. “Yes, I have no one,” he says to Christ, but Jesus can see in his eyes that he hopes to find a friend. “Yes, I have no one,” he says, “but will you be my friend? Will you be my helper? Will you lift me out of my suffering condition?”
With such faith and hope in the man’s voice, Jesus responds in his authoritive manner and commands, “Rise, take up your mat and walk.” And immediately, the man is made well!
Another unbelievable miracle of our Lord! Jesus heals a man paralyzed for 38 years! But the greater miracles is that Christ offers friendship and love to a person desperately alone. In other words, Jesus offers true life to someone who was forgotten, alone, and abandoned by the world! A man who was alone and who had no friends, discovers the greatest friend in the world – Jesus Christ!
This is the most miraculous discovery each one of us can make in life. We can be assured that we are never alone, but that Christ is with us. He is our friend who will never abandon us. He is our Lord, who willingly becomes our closest and dearest friend! As Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “I do not call you servants any longer . . . but I have called you friends” (John 15:15).
The first name given to Jesus before his birth was, “Emanuel”, which means “God is with us.” The last words Christ left to his disciples before He returned to heaven was the promise: “Remember, I am with you always even until the end of the age.” And during his time on earth, Christ always comforted his followers by saying, “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11:29-30).
Let me conclude with a beautiful story that summarizes this constant presence and friendship of God:
One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand; one belonging to him, and the other to the Lord. When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life. This really bothered him and he questioned the Lord about it.
“Lord, You said that once I decided to follow You, You’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why when I needed You most, You would leave me.”
The Lord replied, “My precious, precious child, I love you and would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”
The paralyzed man in the Gospel lesson cried out, “Lord I have no one to help me.” But Jesus reassured him by saying, “I am here. I am with you. I will not leave you orphaned. Do not let your heart be troubled, and do not be afraid.”
As we continue in this Paschal season, let us continue to greet one another with the joyful words, “Christ is Risen! And let us remember that He is alive. He is with us now. And as he came to the disciples after his resurrection and granted them peace, He is ready to come among us, heal us from all our paralyses, and fill our hearts with his eternal peace and joy and comfort!
Christ is Risen!