Happy Sunday! We are starting a new series here at Limen Place: Sunday Scripture Art
Today’s scripture is John 5:1-18, in which Jesus heals a paralytic at Bethesda…or does he? There are varying interpretations of this passage, and to illustrate this, I have found two very different paintings of the story, that leave the viewer with very different messages.
The first interpretation is illustrated in the painting by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617 – 1682).
Note how the man Jesus heals is holding his hands out almost shrugging like “it’s not my fault!”. And how the man is right there by the water. Like, why can’t he make it across two feet in 38 years?! And check out the expression on Jesus’s face. It has just a hint of “seriously dude, just get up.”
In this interpretation, the man is stuck in the role of victim.
In fact, possibly even plays into that role. The story goes like this: Jesus comes upon this man who cannot walk, and asks him if he wants to be well. The man’s response is to blame others for not helping him to the healing pools – they cut him in line, push him out of the way, he is never able to get there first. Perhaps the man’s response to Jesus was even a well-worn spiel designed to elicit sympathy (and coin) from passers-by. At the best, he had given up. At the worst, he did not actually want to be healed. Because really, the idea that 38 years would go by without a single person helping this man is just absurd. He must be gaming the system. Maybe he wasn’t even really all that sick to begin with.
It gets worse!
After Jesus heals him, and the man walks away, the Jews accused him of carrying his mat on the Sabbath. What does he do? He shifts blame, pointing the finger and saying ‘It wasn’t my fault! Someone told me to!’ But he doesn’t know who the man who healed him was. Jesus fixes that by returning to tell the man to sin no more. The man’s response? To nark on Jesus. He runs to the Jews and tells them whose fault it is he is working on the Sabbath. And thus begins the persecution of Jesus.
According to this interpretation, this man was never truly healed because he never got out of his victim mentality. And that is why Jesus asked “do you want to be healed.” Because ultimately, even Jesus can only do so much. We must want to be healed.
But there is another interpretation, seen in the painting by Carl Hienrich Bloch (1834-1890).
It presents a different scene. Jesus has to peek under a blanket to find the man. The man himself isn’t even the focus of the painting. He is in shadow, barely visible. The light directs our attention to Jesus and to another anonymous person waiting to be healed. This other man, the one Jesus is not tending to, is the only one with a bright color. He is the focus. Why? Look at how he stares at you, that expression on his face. What is it? A challenge, perhaps?
In the first painting, Jesus is looking at the man he heals with a challenge. In this second painting, the challenge is and is presented by another person in need of healing, and it is a challenge to us, the bystanders. Why aren’t you helping?
Here’s where I’m at right now.
I love the message of empowerment, of agency, in the question “Do you want to be healed?” It says that ultimately, we have to want it. That part of healing is being open to the changes that healing entails. To be ready for the new life that awaits us. And I firmly believe this is true; mindset is so important. We have to want to change. But where that interpretation gets sticky is when we try to take it outside ourselves, to apply it to others, or to use it to explain structural inequalities. Because as much as I like the empowerment of “you have to want to change” for myself, I also hear all the people who look at the homeless, look at the poor, look at the marginalized and think “if they would only pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” The shadow side of saying that anyone can better themselves if they have the right attitude is to say that those who haven’t “bettered themselves” (however you might define that) must not have the right attitude. That it’s their fault. And this, of course, ignores all the structural inequalities and barriers that exist at the societal level. Individual agency is not everything.
But maybe I’m overthinking all of this.
If the goal for Christians is to be like Jesus, then what is important here is what Jesus did.
He healed the man’s physical condition. A man who made no claim to faith. A man who blamed others for his situation. A man whose response to being healed was not gratitude, but snitching. Jesus healed him. Which brings us back to the man with the red scarf on his head, looking at us, the bystanders, challenging us.