Biblical exegesis isn’t something you’ll find much of here. I am no scholar of the Bible; indeed, I am a sinner through and through, a man of unclean lips as Isaiah might say.
But I can’t get the story of Jesus’s words to the lame man at the pool at Bethesda out of my mind. It seems to me there’s a moral there, something uniquely suited to our times.
As reported in John’s Gospel, chapter five, Jesus went to Jerusalem for a feast, entering near a pool of water known as Bethesda. Apparently, the waters of the pool were thought to have healing properties. Disabled folks – the blind, lame and paralyzed -- would lie near the pool, hoping to enter it, or to be placed within it, when its waters stirred.
Jesus saw a lame man laying near the pool. The man had been lame for nearly 40 years.
“Do you want to get well?” Jesus asked him.
“Sir,” the man replied. I have no one to help into the pool when the waters stir.”
Jesus then said: “Get up. Pick up your bed and walk.”
The man did so at once, and was healed.
As miracles go, this is stunning stuff. A simple response was all it took, an instantaneous response of faith. Had the man scoffed, he might not have been healed at all. This was one of the miracles that led Jewish leaders to turn on Jesus; the healing, after all, took place on a Sabbath, a day of rest.
Leave aside for the moment the miraculous power ascribed to Jesus. Focus only on the bare minimum: the words and the context.
A man, a victim, lay wasting. A cure was within sight. If he could but get to Bethesda’s pool, he might be cured. He lay waiting for help, for someone to move him from his position of despair to a place in which hope might blossom. But for the help of another, he could be whole. In modern terms, the lame man resembled a victim, a suffering soul in need of some social justice, a redirection of the activities of others to that he might be placed in the healing pool.
Jesus’s words stun me: “Pick up your bed and walk.”
It almost sounds like a rebuke to my ears. The power to heal, to obtain what the man wanted, lay within the man himself. Yes, a miraculous intervention was required, but isn’t one of the miracles that the man could listen at all, that he could summon the belief that he could move after living for nearly 40 years as a cripple?
I keep hearing the words “pick up your bed and walk” as I read the news.
Everywhere there are victims of injustice. Everyone is oppressed and in need of recognition. Social justice warriors are filled with plans, programs and the aspirations to assure that no one is left behind – that everyone is carried to the waters of Bethesda as the waters stir. If you can walk, stop what you are doing, carry the person beside you, do so in the name of justice now.
It sounds like a harmless enough sort of Sunday school rhetoric.
But in the world of cancel culture it has suddenly become mean. “Check your privilege” is the disarming demand of an existential pick pocket. Translated, the message is simple: Stop what you are doing and take me to the fountain now. In the dizzying race to elevate difference and diversity into a moral imperative taking the place of excellence, we’re suddenly in a world in which little can be done save tending to the needs of those who perceive themselves as aggrieved.
Forgive me if I am cynical about it all. I see the world less as a place in which justice is now suddenly being done for all manner of the oppressed, the marginalized and the unrecognized than as an asylum in which the line between doctor and patient has suddenly been eliminated. The dizzying demand to elevate self-pity to the status of secular sainthood cannot end well.
So I hear something heterodoxical to the new orthodoxy in Jesus’s words.
“Pick up you bed and walk” seems like a challenge, a challenge to be issued to those laying about demanding that someone pick them up and carry them to where they want to go. Do you want a miracle, a transformation from the life you are living to the life you want: “Pick up your bed and walk.” Have the faith to believe that your actions have efficacy. Don’t lay waiting for me, pick up your bed and walk.
I talked about this with Vinnie Penn on his radio show the other day. Some listeners were put off by this reading of John’s Gospel. Didn’t I miss the sheer power of Jesus’s healing miracle? Yes, I did. But I wasn’t aiming at larger theological truths. I was aiming at the world of the here and now, a world of “intersectional” demands for justice now for everyone in every conceivable circumstance. The potter’s shed has become a madhouse; all the pots shout: “Why makest me thus?”
So I am issuing the John 5:8 challenge. (A quick lesson in scriptural nomenclature for those of you who’ve never read the Bible. The five refers to the chapter in John’s Gospel; the eight refers to the verse. Hence, the eight verse of the fifth chapter.)
It’s sort of like John 3:16. When you see a 3:16 behind home plate at a ballgame, you know someone is proselytizing by referring to John 3:16: “For God so loved the world …” You know the rest, and if you don’t, you now know how to look it up, right there in the third chapter of John, the 16th verse.
What if folks now started to flash 5:8 at random locations, or in response to the latest demand that we change this more or norm to carry today’s latest victim to the healing waters of recognition? It might not be what Jesus had in mind, but, it bears repeating, that the man at Bethesda would never have been healed had he not, in fact, acted on his own to pick up his own bed and to walk.