The healing of the paralytic: sermon on the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

“Behold they brought to him one sick of the palsy lying in a bed”

Although we are only in October, and Advent therefore is still some time off, the liturgy today already begins to turn our minds toward something which should never be very far from a Christian’s thoughts: the return of our Lord in glory. St Paul tells the Corinthians that the grace which they have received through baptism and confirmation gives them the power, among other things, to await the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to be found innocent on the day of His coming. Elsewhere in the same letter, he tells them that the form of this world is passing away. If that was true in the first century, how much more true is it today, for us, who live almost twenty centuries nearer to the end. The introit and the gradual of the Mass also put us in mind of that great day: “Give peace, O Lord,” says the introit, “to them that patiently wait for thee, that thy prophets may be found faithful … I rejoiced at the things that were said to me: we shall go into the house of the Lord.” The Gradual repeats: “I was glad at the things that were said to me: we shall go to the house of the Lord.” On the last day, when Christ comes again, the Church will be glad, because she will have finished her difficult time in this world, and then she will go into the house of our Lord — that is, to Heaven.

But why does the Lord delay to give this gladness to His faithful people? Why have nearly twenty centuries already passed, during which time the Church has had so much to endure? St Peter has given us the reason for it in his second epistle: 

“The Lord is not slow with his promise, as some think, but rather he is patient with you, not wishing that you should perish but rather that all should come to repentance.”

Christ’s return in glory is “delayed”, to use a human expression, because God is still giving mankind time to repent. There is a certain number of the elect to be made up, a number which God alone knows, and until it is reached, the days of this world must continue. But while the world lasts, everyone has the possibility of turning to Him and being saved.

I say that everyone on earth has the possibility of being saved: and this is true from the point of view of God, who, as the Book of Wisdom tells us, hates nothing of that which he has made. Yet from another point of view, there are many people who at the moment, as far as lies in them, do not have the possibility of being saved. We can even say that mankind, taken as a whole, is like the paralytic in the gospel, lying helpless on his stretcher. Or, at least, a great number of human beings have just as little power to perform the acts of faith, hope and love that can bring them to heaven, as that paralytic had of standing up and walking. It is not within the power of mere human nature to perform these saving acts. The collect of the Mass today reminds us of that: tibi sine te placere non possumus — “without Thee, we cannot please Thee”.

But what attitude are we, as Catholics, meant to have toward those who are in this position, paralysed by their lack of the three theological virtues? Are we to shrug and say, “There’s nothing we can do about it; they’ve made their bed and they must lie on it”? Of course not — our model is the four men who brought their paralysed friend to Jesus, on the stretcher. One of the other gospels shows their determination and ingenuity: not being able to force their way through the crowd that was standing around the door of the house where He was, these four men took the tiles off the roof and let their friend down that way. St Matthew describes our Lord’s response: 

“Seeing their faith, he said to the sick man, Be of good heart, son, thy sins are forgiven.”

Notice that it doesn’t say, “Seeing his faith” but “seeing their faith”. Christ absolves the young man of his sins not so much on account of the young man’s own faith, but to reward the faith of his friends.

We can bring our paralysed friends to Christ. First of all, and most powerfully, by prayer. When we show our faith in Him by persevering in prayer, day after day, or by coming before His real presence in the Blessed Sacrament, He cannot fail to be touched by that, just as He was touched to see the lengths to which the four men went to bring the young man before Him. He will always reward our prayers for our loved ones. But not just for our loved ones, those whom we know personally. We do well, sometimes, to offer to God the whole human race, mostly paralysed as it is. Somebody, somewhere, will always benefit from such a prayer, even though we may not discover in this life who it is. By these prayers we are helping in a way to hasten Christ’s return, since the end of the world cannot come until the number of the elect has been completed.

But as well as prayers, there are also conversations. When people live without God, there usually comes a moment when they realise that their lives have not made them happy. Either they did not fulfil their ambitions, or they fulfilled them and were still dissatisfied. If these people are our relations or friends, that can be a good time for us to speak to them, and to invite them to begin again in a new way. Everyone wishes to be happy: so when a person discovers that his own path has not brought him happiness, he is more ready to listen to someone who suggests another one. We can invite them to begin again by going to confession. And some people are more likely to accept this invitation when it comes to them from a fellow lay-person than from a priest.

I think this gospel offers a picture of laity and priests working together for the salvation of souls. St Matthew suggests this by the phrase he uses at the end, after Christ has proved by the miracle that He really did forgive the young man’s sins. The gospel does not say that “the crowd glorified God for giving such power to a Man”, but that “they glorified God for giving such power to men”. St Matthew is indicating that the power to forgive sins which our Lord brought to earth, remains on earth until the end. At every ordination of a priest, God gives this great power to certain men. But He gives a power to the laity also: the power to bring their sick brethren to Jesus for healing — by their prayers, by their good example, and, when the right circumstances arise, by their words of encouragement, and perhaps using some ingenuity — like the four stretcher-bearers in the gospel. Priests and laity must continue to co-operate in this way, until the last priest has lifted up his hand and spoken the holy words of absolution for the last time, and the last sinner, like the paralytic in the gospel, gets up and goes home, to the home of a blessed eternity.