In today’s Gospel reading, from John 5:1-16, Jesus heals a man who has been sick for 38 years, and in so doing starts his enemies down the path of conspiracy to have him killed. Jesus heals. God saves. Huzzah. That is the Good News. But, as with each of the healing miracles in the Gospel, this story is about far more than Jesus healing the flesh of one person, who will, after all, eventually die. Jesus heals not just to cure the flesh of one man, but rather to teach us how to heal each other, how to heal our broken world, and to heal our own hearts.
This passage takes place at the pool of Bethesda, which the Gospel tells us is near the Sheep Gate at Jerusalem, and is surrounded by five covered porticoes. The name Bethesda means House of Mercy, which speaks to the purpose of this pool and its message for us. St. John tells us the sick and lame gathered at this pool for healing. If you’re reading a version of the Scripture that hasn’t suffered too much from redaction and revision, the text tells us in verse 4: “For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.” This angel is typically associated with the Archangel Raphael, though this verse is omitted (erased) in many versions, to square the text in John with Luther’s scriptural mucking about which resulted in the removal of Tobit — the sole scriptural text that mentions Raphael by name — from Protestant canon. Even in the (ahem) redacted (ahem) version, the intent of those coming to the pool is clear: they seek healing in its waters.
But, for the man Jesus encounters, there has been no healing in 38 years. For 38 years he has languished within sight of the healing waters, not because the stories of the waters’ curative powers (given by God, through Raphael) are untrue, but because the hard-heartedness of humanity has stood in the way. The man tells Jesus: “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; while I am on my way, someone else gets down there before me.” God has offered healing in the pool of Bethesda. But, this man remains sick because his brothers and sisters continually step over and around him, seeking for themselves first and leaving him to lay, suffering and lost.
Without hesitation, Jesus heals the man, and tells him to take up his mat and be on his way. Jesus does what any one of the people at the pool could have already done. Any one of the people in the crowd could have picked up this poor man and carried him into the waters. But, selfishness and cruelty won out. Jesus heals, because we have refused to use the powers already given us by God to benefit our sisters and brothers. Ultimately, Jesus is not just healing this one man: he is crying out to each of us: Look at what you already should have done!
The religious leaders, who never care much for Jesus pointing out their hard-hearted nature, have a swift and sadly predictable response: they accost the healed man, berate him for the “sin” of carrying his mat on the Sabbath, and demand to know who healed him. For them, strict adherence to an arbitrary rule is far more important than this man’s prior suffering and current joy. It is of no consequence to them that he suffered because none of the faithful — least of all these same scribes and Pharisees — would carry him into the healing waters at the House of Mercy, for they had no mercy in their hearts. They are more concerned with upholding the rule book which gives them power and status. And when they discover it is Jesus who once again threatens that power and status, they decide in their hard hearts there can be only remedy: he must be killed.
Jesus knows this will be the response. He knows it will lead to Golgotha and the cross. And he most definitely knows he’s violating Jewish law by healing this man on the Sabbath. And he does it anyway. Flagrantly. In public. For all to see. For us to see. Because Jesus is not just healing this one man. He is showing us the path to follow. When we encounter unjust suffering, when we see those in need being trampled by a hard-hearted world that knows no mercy, then there is no rule, no law — either of man, or of man’s interpretation of God — that should stand in our way. Mercy and love can be our only response. And if that means shattering the rule book (and accepting the world’s consequences for doing so), then that’s exactly what we must do.
When we encounter injustice and suffering, Jesus asks us to guide our actions by one law and one law only: LOVE. Because all the law and all the prophets hang on that one divine word, and we are called to live it into this hurting world.