Fourth Sunday after Pascha – Paralytic (at the Pool of Bethesda): May 15, 2021by Fr. Jonathan Cholcher
Except for the Sunday of the Holy Myrrhbearers, the Gospel readings for 50-day season from Pascha to Pentecost are taken from the Gospel according to the Apostle John who, in the Orthodox Church, is called The Theologian because of his sublime understanding and expression of the truths of God and the Incarnation. The Sunday themes, except for the Myrrhbearers, are various episodes in the Gospel of John, the first being Christ's appearance to Doubting Thomas on the Sunday after Pascha, which the Risen Christ did historically one week after His Resurrection (see John 20:26).
Beginning on this Third Sunday after Pascha, we consider theologically significant encounters between Christ and various persons revealing the force of Christ's incorruptible life fulfilled in His Resurrection from the dead. This Third Sunday after Pascha centers on Christ's healing of the paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-15).
In summary: during a feast of the Jews (which the Fathers identify as Pentecost, based on the ensuing discussion between Christ and the Jews), Jesus went to Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate where He passed by a water-pool, called Bethesda. This pool was surrounded by a multitude of sick people because when an angel stirred the water, the first person to enter the pool was cured of their infirmity. Jesus saw a man lying by the pool who had a condition of paralysis for 38 years. After Christ then healed the man on the Sabbath day, the Jews criticized him for carrying his bed as instructed by Christ, asking the man (unaware of Jesus' name) who it was who told him to carry his bed. After Jesus found and revealed His identity to the man in the temple, the man told the Jews it was Jesus who had made him well.
This episode contrasts life and death in a striking way, as the ensuing discussion between the Jews and Jesus illustrates. As a result of healing the paralytic and telling him to carry his bed on the Sabbath, the Jews "persecuted Jesus, and sought to kill Him" (Jn. 5:16). Then, after referring to God as "My Father," "the Jews sought all the more to kill [Jesus], because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God" (Jn. 5:17, 18). Christ's healing of physical paralysis reveals the greater infirmity of mental, or spiritual, paralysis preventing people from coming to Jesus for life and salvation.
The paralytic by the pool of Bethesda simply responds to Jesus' question: "Do you want to be made well?" (Jn. 5:6). The man thinks he knows the only option to be cured: "Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me" (Jn. 5:7); in other words, "If You could just watch the water with me, and be ready to put me in before anyone else, then I'll be cured." (Now, according to Jewish legalism, putting the paralytic in the water on the Sabbath day will aid and abet criminal activity, namely, doing work on the day of rest.) Here the Lord narrows the focus: "Jesus said to him, 'Rise, take up your bed and walk.' And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked. And that day was the Sabbath" (Jn. 5:8-9).
Physical paralysis prevents the man from being healed, rather, effecting his own cure. But a mental, or spiritual, paralysis presents an even greater barrier to healing, exemplified by the Jews' rigid adherence to Sabbath regulations and corresponding condemnation of those who violate them. When the Jews discovered that Jesus told the man to carry his bed on the Sabbath, they not only objected to Jesus' seeming disregard for their understanding of the Law, but they wanted to kill Him, get rid of Him as an enemy of righteousness!
Here we see real paralysis(!) – people paralyzed within their own opinions, immobilized by fear of punishment for breaking the rules of people in religious control, incapable of recognizing true life when they see it, or moving toward that life in order to share it. When it comes to life and salvation, Jesus transcends our opinions, lust for power, and faulty perceptions. Christ doesn't argue about it; He acts.
As He demonstrated on another occasion, saying to the ruler of a synagogue: "Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound – think of it – for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?" (Lk. 13:15-16). So here, Jesus purposely tells the paralytic to rise and take up his bed and walk (Jesus knew full well it was the Sabbath and how the legalists would react).
Likewise, Jesus purposely concealed His identity from the paralytic, allowing him to be questioned by the Jews in order to contrast Jesus' miraculous healing of the man with His command to carry his bed on the Sabbath. "Afterward Jesus found [the healed paralytic] in the temple, and said to him, 'See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you'" (Jn. 5:14). Christ reveals His power to give life and salvation over sin and death, and this revelation eclipses all our other pettier, worldly concerns.
"[Christ] Himself likewise shared in the same [flesh and blood], that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage" (Heb. 2:14-15). The Jews plan and threaten to kill Jesus, who willingly goes to His own death on the Cross. Trampling down death by death, by His Resurrection Christ shows that physical death is not the greatest obstacle we face.
Christ breaks the bonds of fear, of pride, and of unbelief that result in bodily death. By a word, Christ removes our paralysis enabling us to keep His commands to walk boldly toward His everlasting Kingdom.