The early days of Jesus' ministry were spent in an explosion of activity in Capernaum and its surrounding towns, which were all very close together. If Jesus' home base was Capernaum - which is referred to as his "own town" - did he have a house there? Some scholars think he may have. But since he asked his disciples to give up everything, and said that the son of man has no place to lay his head, scholars believe that probably people came to see him at Peter's and Andrew's house in Capernaum. There, in hospitality, the door would have always been open to guests.
In fact, you can see the ruins of a house in present-day Capernaum which tradition attests is the very house of Peter and Andrew where Jesus lodged and where the crowds swarmed around him. This is a first century structure, a simple courtyard house, with a large room in it for some type of public use with graffiti scrawled in it in Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Syriac, many saying "Jesus is Lord and Christ."
Crossan and Reed, in "Excavating Jesus," say that "the very fact that this room was plastered and graffitied makes it totally unlike any other in Capernaum or elsewhere in Galilee, and demonstrates that this one-time room in a private residence was held in special regard by many people only a century after Jesus' activities in Galilee." Early Christians venerated the site and built a small church there, a structure mentioned by many fourth century pilgrims. Fr. James Martin, S.J. tells us in "Jesus A Pilgrimage":
"Today, over the ruins of the modest, octagonal, basalt-stone church,... hovers an enormous, modernist church perched on metal pylons: the Church of St. Peter's House. It looks like a gray spaceship has landed atop the original structure. On the floor of the steel and glass church is a window through which pilgrims peer directly into the ruins of the much older church and the original dwelling below."
Peter and Andrew's home, then, is the likely place where crowds continually gathered to see and hear Jesus, and often be healed by him. To this home a group of friends carried their paralyzed friend on a litter - through the streets of Capernaum or even from a neighboring town - only to be frustrated and upset because they couldn't get through the crush of people. Courageously, out of desperation, they climbed up on to the roof by the traditional stairway (roofs were places to sit and relax), took the roof apart, and lowered their paralyzed friend into the middle of the crowd in the main room to see Jesus, hoping the Wonder-Worker would heal him.
Jesus is strongly affected by the faith and love of these friends. St. Mark says "When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, 'Son, your sins are forgiven.'" The scribes who are present in the crowd, devout Jews who interpret the Law, are understandably caught off-guard and off-balance. In their hearts they say "Only God can forgive sin!" Is this man Jesus presenting himself as the agent of forgiveness? "Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy!" The word used for "fellow" is derogatory. The scribes aren't thinking of Jesus as a Rabbi or Teacher, but some "guy."
"Blasphemy" refers to profaning the Name of God. Jesus has offered forgiveness to the paralytic, taking upon himself the prerogative of God; what's more, he hasn't even asked the man to confess his sins or do an act of reparation!
Jesus, always sensitive to people's faces and body language, recognizes what the scribes are thinking and feeling, and what a challenge he poses both to their understanding of the Law and to their powerful religious authority. He is at the beginning of his ministry. He doesn't intend to back down. So he issues another clear-cut, clever challenge. Martin describes the confrontation:
"Which is easier, he asks: to forgive sins, or to say 'Stand up, and take your mat, and walk?' That puts the scribes in a bind. If they say 'Forgiving sins," they are belittling what is rightfully God's work. If they say, 'Healing a lame man,' they are publicly declaring that it is easy for Jesus to heal, thus supporting claims about his divinity. The crowd must have been thrilled: 'He is going to heal him, right here!' The scribes must have been worried: 'He is going to heal him, right here!'"
Jesus then says "But so that you might know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins," - here he says to the paralyzed man - " I say to you, stand up, take your mat, and go to your home."
Immediately the paralyzed man stands up and picks up his mat. But he does not immediately return home. He travels first through the crowd so that everyone can see him. His friends and the crowd are amazed, wonder-struck, and they joyfully praise God because the paralytic has been healed.
Why did Jesus first tell the paralytic that his sins were forgiven? Did he follow the traditional religious thinking of the time that illness was the result of sin in a person's life? We know that Jesus did not think this way because elsewhere in St. John's Gospel when he encounters a man born blind, and is asked who sinned, the man or his parents, Jesus replies "Neither this man nor his parents sinned."
What Jesus is saying implicitly by first forgiving the man's sins is that while we all think physical illness is bad, sin is worse. And, undoubtedly, the man was a sinner, in need of forgiveness, as we all are. The man himself might have thought his physical illness was the result of spiritual sin. Even today, people are inclined to say to themselves or to others "What have I done to deserve this illness?"
The marvelous truth about this healing is that Jesus can heal whatever is in us and about us that needs healing. We are all paralyzed men and women. Emotional wounds, physical illness, and sinfulness all can and do paralyze us, leaving us frozen in our pasts.
Emotional wounds keep us playing and replaying our memories of past insults and abuses so that we cannot move into the joys and challenges of our present relationships. Deaths and/or physical illnesses keep us playing and replaying our golden pasts when our loved ones were alive or when we were well; we long for the past with such intensity that we have no energy with which to cope with our present pain and its challenges for us to grow.
Our past sins can shackle us to so much guilt and self-hatred that we cannot forgive ourselves or believe that God can forgive us so we can be set free. Or else we cannot admit our sinfulness to ourselves and so we attack others, pinioned to anger and wrongful self-defense instead of freely facing the truth of the upheavals our sins have caused in ourselves and others, and our need for repentance.
Jesus calls us to come to him; then, with and through him, we can confront and experience the truth of our lives, past and present. Sometimes, we have the strength within ourselves to answer his call and come to him for healing. Other times, we need our friends to carry us. Or - we need to carry our friends. This is the beauty, the meaning, the joy, of Christian community. Martin says:
"Often, when we are in trouble, or doubting, or struggling, we rely on others to carry us to God. Just as often, we must do the carrying, to help friends who are struggling. This is one of the many benefits of organized religion, as we all need others to help us find God. Even though we may disagree with others, and find life in a community occasionally annoying and sometimes scandalous, we need others, because the community is one way that we are carried to God, especially when we are too weak to walk to God on our own."
As we "rest" in this story, in the ordinary little house in Capernaum, as we hear the excited crowd, see the friends with their beloved burden, picture Jesus' face, and hear his healing words, we can also think of ourselves and our lives. Where are the ordinary places in our lives where we have experienced healing? Who are the people in our lives who have carried us to God, or whom we have carried to God? What are the places in our own hearts and souls which cry out for Jesus' healing words and touch? We too, like the crowd, can cry out in amazement, thanksgiving, and joy for the times Jesus has healed us in the past. We too can cry out to our Lord Jesus in our present paralysis and pain, with the faith-knowledge that Jesus can and will lead us to healing - Now!