Our gospel passage today tells us of a man which Jesus healed on the sabbath. There are various interpretations to this story and if I am honest with you all, I have found it hard in my research to find one which I am totally at ease with.
One commentator that I initially read suggests that the man healed in this story is perhaps the least willing and the least grateful of all the people Jesus heals in John’s Gospel. In exploring past the end of our reading they say that when challenged the man tries to deflect away from what he is seen to be doing ‘wrong’ by telling the religious authorities he was acting on Jesus’ instructions. In this interpretation as far as the healed man is concerned the religious authorities were the ones whose rules he should be abiding by. The commentator uses the piece to examine whose authority we default to in today’s world. An interesting question but by no means the only interpretation available.
Approaching from another angle, a second writer comments that in our own world, the Bethesda story reminds us of the fact that social and economic systems meant to assist the needy often keep them in poverty. Archaeology tells us that Bethesda was a mass of humanity at its lowest point of hopelessness. As Jesus entered this place there were voices of despair crying out for one last chance, one moment of hope. Instead of acting within the system, Jesus bypasses it entirely by telling the paralytic to get up, pick up his mat and walk. The conclusion for this commentator is that the tale offers us impetus to challenge the system in a radical way such as the way Jesus does.
Finally, I found a third source who picked up on a key phrase in the passage and explores the fact that this event takes place on the sabbath. The writer here suggests that we should take a different look at the concept of work, particularly the concept of work for Jesus. Instead the offering from this writer is that perhaps Jesus healing on the sabbath wasn’t really ‘work’ for him, it was so much a part of who he was. To heal this man was to bring about wholeness and restoration, which is what the sabbath is designed for. Another interesting interpretation and one that is equally valid as the others.
For me, the conclusion is this: The bible offers us a wealth of literature that we can use and explore in many ways. There is caution to be exercised, sometimes interpretations can cause harm. On the other hand, if we take the words and open our hearts to the Spirit, there is much to gain. Within such a short passage as we have today there are numerous aspects that we can focus on. What I will take away from writing this reflection is that we can’t just rely on one voice to tell us what it means. Reading the bible and exploring its meaning is a community activity.
Revd Hannah Lane