Personally, I don’t really like election seasons. They seem to bring out the worst in people. That is not just an American thing. I have seen the same in Canada.
I guess that all of us have issues that are especially important to us and that we are sensitive to in pre-election rhetoric and proposed policies. One of mine is poverty and what to do to help those who are in situations of fundamental need and stubborn, generational poverty. As I see it this was a topic discussed often in the Bible and a benchmark of Christian charity. Of course, I also know that not all Christians see the solutions to the problem of poverty the same way.
Unfortunately, I find that discussions of economics and political policy regarding relief to the poor during an election season can bring out ugly caricatures of impoverished people, assumptions of character flaws, and a general lack of Christian charity and compassion. So, it is in this unconscious context that I read today’s chapter, in particular this interaction between Jesus and a man who has been disabled and destitute for almost four decades.
There was a man who had been there, in the same sick state, for thirty-eight years. Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had been there a long time already.
“Do you want to get well?” he asked him.
“Well, sir,” the sick man replied, “I don’t have anyone to put me into the pool when the water gets stirred up. While I’m on my way there, someone else gets down before me.”
“Get up,” said Jesus, “pick up your mattress and walk!”
At once the man was healed. He picked up his mattress and walked. (5:5-9a)
“Do you want to get well?” I am not sure we can know for sure what Jesus meant by this question; I suspect he was provoking a faith response. What sick person wouldn’t want to get well? But he had been there at Bethesda for 38 years. There had been many opportunities to get into the pool, right? This question sounds like what we sometimes hear people say today to destitute people today: “Do you even want a job?” “Do you want to get off welfare?”
The explanation from the paralytic as to why he has not yet been healed is the kind that, for some, sounds like an excuse. But are we really to believe that if he had had the real opportunity to be healed he would not have taken it? It is rather hard to get up when you are paralyzed. The blind man beats the crippled man to the pool every time. There are explanations we hear for persistent joblessness and reliance on others and they some times sound like excuses. And maybe sometimes they are; as long as there is sin in the heart of people there will be people who take advantage of others. But it becomes easy to think that some people are just lazy. Hopelessness, though, sounds a whole lot like laziness. After years of trying and failing, people give up hope. After years of losing the competition for getting ahead, people begin to believe they can’t. Giving up comes from hopelessness, not usually laziness.
A lazy man would not have tried to “get up” when told to do so by Jesus. How many times had mean-spirited teenagers taunted him to do the same, only to run off laughing at his inability? This man’s healing started with his hope being restored. That may have been Jesus’ greatest gift to him. With renewed hope, the paralytic got up.
Writing people off as lazy is easy. God’s people are called to be those who restore hope.