After 38 years of invisibility in a well-travelled area of Jerusalem where people passed daily, Jesus noticed one particular man among the many “invalid, blind, lame and paralyzed” huddled in the five porticoes around the Sheep Gate.
The action throughout the Gospel of John unfolds in the context of six Jewish feasts in Jerusalem, beginning with Passover. The Temple is the center of activity leading to the revelation that Jesus Himself is the true Temple, while the Temple of stone in Jerusalem that awed the Apostles when they saw it, was subsequently destroyed as Jesus had predicted. “Not one stone will be left standing upon another.” [Mk 13:2]
His encounter with the paralytic takes place at the second feast in which Jesus has gone up to Jerusalem. We are not told which feast it is, but it is significant that it takes place at the “Sheep Gate.” Jesus notices a man who has been lying under one of the porticos for 38 years. Why this detail? Did someone get to know this man’s story later to know how long it had been? Did Jesus know this spiritually? Why is this specific number even mentioned? Details like this are not gratuitous.
St Augustine suggests that the five porticoes represent the five books of Moses and the Law which cannot save those who do not discover the Living Water of Christ which reveals their deepest meaning is their source and life. Fr. John Behr points out 38 years is significant as the period of the time the Israelites spent wandering in the desert before the Promised Land, reckoned as beginning not with the Exodus from Egypt, but from the time when Miriam died and “there was no water for the congregation” other than what Moses was able to extract from the rock which the Church came to understand as representing Christ Himself, the source of Living Water.
This deeper theological understanding is further confirmed by the Sheep Gate being at the center of the action. Remember how Jesus refers to himself in the Gospel of John, “I am the door of the Sheep. Whoever enters by me will be saved…“ [Jn 10:7,9] and also “I am the Good Shepherd.” [Jn 10:11] echoing the imagery of the Psalms. “The Lord is my Shepherd…”[Ps 23:1] and “Know that the Lord is God. It is He that has made us and not we ourselves. We are His people, the sheep of his pasture.” [Ps 100:3]
And let’s not forget that in John Chapter 4, just before this event unfolds, Jesus has introduced the reality of “Living Water” to the woman at the well. All these homeless “invalids, blind, lame and paralyzed” lying in the five porticoes were “waiting for the water to move” because they believed that the first one to step in when the waters were stirred, would be healed. What would you call water that moves when an angel touches it? How would you think of the waters if the source of Living Water who sanctifies the waters of the Jordan and all the earth with his Baptism is now standing beside them?
Theodore of Mopsuestia says that this pool of water is where the entrails of sheep offered to God from the first born of the flock were washed by the priests—a salient historical detail that helps us understand why these waters would have been valued as a potential source of cleansing and healing. St John Chrysostom also sees in the event a symbol of baptism “purging all sins and making people alive instead of dead.”
After asking if he wants to be healed, Jesus commands the man, “Rise, take up your pallet and walk.” “Rise” is a significant word for us to hear liturgically two weeks after celebrating the Resurrection, but in the context of what the Gospel of John is revealing to the reader, it is no less significant. This living creative Word from the Son of God is something that is given to the man by God, which he could not carry out on his own. Picking up his pallet and carrying it while he walks, on the other hand, are commands that he can do once he is healed.
St Augustine likens the significance of these two commands to the understanding that when we are sick or paralyzed, someone has to carry us on our pallet, but if we are well, everything changes. Now the healed man will be in the place of the ones who had neglected to care for him. “When you were sick, your neighbor was [or should have been] carrying you. You have been healed, carry your neighbor. So you will fulfill, O man, what was lacking in you.”
Rising up from his pallet at Jesus’ word in the story is independent of any faith in Jesus or understanding of him as the Christ. It is the creative action of God given as a gift. This man does not know who Jesus is. His healing is a total gift of God as will be the case for the resurrection from the dead of all humankind before the Last Judgment. Jesus does not take initiative to reveal who he is to the man. Later when He saw him again in the Temple, he said to him “See you are well, sin no more that nothing worse may befall you!”
The man’s visit to the Temple came after his encounter with the religious leaders who criticized him for carrying his pallet in obedience to what Jesus had instructed him to do. That’s not an insignificant detail. He meets Jesus again in the Temple presumably glorifying God for his healing and pondering all that had happened to him suddenly. Jesus’ word to him, “Sin no more that nothing worse befall you.” carries an interesting overtone after what the man has just been through with his interrogation by the Pharisees on the heels of the most astounding event of his lifetime. To this point, nothing has been said about sin other than what the Pharisees have pointed out. What would the man have heard in the state he was in, glorifying and thanking God in the Temple and pondering the contrast between becoming visible to Jesus in his paralyzed state and then becoming visible to the Pharisees because he was no longer in that state!
The Pharisees suddenly took notice and questioned the man after 38 years of passing by him daily without significant interest. Why? Because they noticed him carrying his pallet on the Sabbath. The wonder and significance of not seeing the miracle of the man being able to walk and carry his pallet is a strange and illuminating detail. The Pharisees show no real interest in the man. They have no joy in his good fortune. They do not look to God with thanksgiving for one who has come alive in their midst. He was for them so far out on the margins of society that he had no real significance. He was one of those who become invisible for us because they are in a state of chronic helpless, hopeless suffering that we learn not to see because it is too painful and disturbing to our lives. And sadly, their way of being attached to and using the religious law had blinded them to its purpose.
When Jesus asked the man “Do you want to be healed?” his answer was not an immediate “Yes!” Perhaps he had lost hope and been acclimated to the situation, becoming used to explaining why he can’t be healed. His response is quite glaring. In the Greek he says literally, I HAVE NO PERSON. Amphilochius of Iconium suggests that Jesus asked this not only that he might heal him, but “that you might see the cruelty of those of the city who were well, because not only did not one give their hand to help you to the streams but they even treated you like an enemy when you asked for help. While it is true that the man had no person, because of this, now before him stood the “friend of man and the only true lover of humankind.”
Yesterday at our foodbank distribution, Verna, one of our regulars, was wearing a sweatshirt that had in big block capital Letters, “YOU DON’T SEE ME.” One of the things that happen when you aren’t noticed, when you aren’t ‘seen’ is that you stop being visible to yourself. I’m told this begins to happen to homeless people after six months on the streets. If a child’s father constantly puts him down, projects on to him his own discontent with himself and says “Boy you’re never gonna mount to nuthin’!” It becomes hard for the boy to see in himself something different than the father’s negative vision.
There is a very revealing little video clip on YouTube called the “Still Face Experiment” in which a securely attached one-year old girl and her mother are interacting happily and then the mother turns her face away for a second and assumes a stone-faced unmoving expression and looks back at the girl who notices instantly and reacts by going through a series of attempts to re-engage the mother’s interest. When this fails she goes into emotional deterioration and cries and struggles in pain losing control over her body. When the mother re-engages she returns to her original state in a few seconds.
Imagine if the mother is a drug addict, severely depressed, constantly overworked, in an abusive marriage and otherwise unable to respond adequately to the child over years. The child’s nervous system is deeply imprinted neurologically in ways that will significantly affect her later as an adult. The terrible irony is that severe addiction, homelessness and poverty are the result of trauma and neglect becoming a neurobiological disease, not the result of defects in an otherwise healthy person’s moral character. Homelessness for six months or longer in and of itself is recognized as serious trauma that deeply wounds even previously healthy people.
At the dramatic level of the action of this encounter, we also have an indirect description of the Pharisee’s condition. In contrast to Jesus, the Pharisees are unable to see the man, though they are acutely aware of what they consider to be the man’s sin. This too is a terrible paralysis. They see what is wrong, not what is right, “straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.” Their love and joy, wonder and thanksgiving are paralyzed.
St John Chrysostom focuses on what he sees as the man’s resilience.
“Each year he hoped to be freed from his disease. He lay there waiting, never giving up. If he had not persevered as much as he did, wouldn’t his future prospects, let alone his past, have been enough to discourage him from staying around the place?. That man had been waiting thirty-eight years without obtaining what he desired, and he still did not withdraw. And he failed, not through any carelessness of his own, but through being oppressed and suffering violence from others. And still he did not give up.”
When the Pharisees see the revitalized man who is now suddenly visible to them, it is only to offer the puny judgment and punitive command to put his pallet down. Consider this man’s inner experience as he leaves the interrogation and finds his way into the Temple. He could have been wondering about being called out by the religious authorities for the sin of pallet-carrying on the Sabbath in the face of the utterly astounding, mind-bending, soul-restoring wonder of being restored to life after 38 years of humiliation, suffering and pain that he had experienced. The contrast inside him between these two encounters is extraordinary.
When Jesus sees him again and says “See, you are well, now go and sin no more so that nothing worse befalls you.” I wonder what the man would have heard. I wonder in what manner Jesus said this to him. Did he know what had just happened to him? Was it an affectionate embrace of the irony of the man’s experience? “Watch out for those religious police brother! Rejoice in the Lord and live the life you were meant too! You are free now. You are no longer invisible nor are you subject to the mistreatment of those who cannot see anything but your subjugation to their need to use religion to control you, because of their fear and lack of joy and love.
His most recent sin was carrying his pallet in the eyes of men. In the eyes of God who willingly subjects Himself to the judgment of such men in order to save us all from being destroyed by our incurable attempt to become good or justified apart from Communion with God who alone is good, he has now been seen, encountered and restored to community as a whole person. Now he is invited to remain on the Way that leads to Life
It occurs to me that Jesus words to the man were a kind of benediction akin to those same words Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery after she had been freed from the judgment of her accusers. Men were going to stone her to death as the law justified. She had been publicly humiliated by them, dragged into the open having been caught in the act. After Jesus had established calm and all her accusers had left, realizing they themselves needed forgiveness for their sins, Jesus talked with her to make sure that she was able to see that no one had condemned her. Then he said to her, “Neither do I.” With such unexpected mercy, loving care and defense from Jesus, while knowing clearly she had been in the wrong, humiliated and left numb and in shock; only after she had returned to herself and begun to enter into a grateful thanksgiving and new hope, then and only then, did he say to her those words, “Go and sin no more.”
Such words have no judgment or condemnation in them, but are words of confirmation of new life, hope and love. They come after healing, forgiveness and restoration. Then they are received by the heart as a joyful blessing and encouragement. “Go and sin no more so that nothing worse befalls you” are then good words; words that come forth as Living Water welling up into Eternal Life. Glory to God whose mercy endures forever.
 Cf. Augustine’s Homilies on John, #17.2.
 Behr, J. John the Theologian & his Paschal Gospel, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2019, p 147
 Cf. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Vol Iva, Thomas Oden, Ed., DownersGrove, IL: Intervarsity Press, P. 178.
 Ibid., p. 179
 Ibid, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 17.9.2-3, p181
 Ibid., Oration 9, p 180.
 Ibid, Homilies on the Gospel of John 36.1-2, p 180