“Jesus says, ‘Wilt thou be made whole?’ The impotent man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steps down before me.’” (John 5:6-7) This raises an intriguing question: why didn’t the man simply answer, “Yes! I would like to be made whole”? Why did the paralytic answer the way he did? And what can we learn about how the Church views spiritual progress?
Let us first start with how long the paralytic has been at the pool, and why he was there. John 5:5 says that he has been there thirty eight years. At the outset we must accept that the man is at the pool because he is sick, that is, paralyzed, and wants to get well. However, in John 5:14, we learn from our Lord that the man knew he was a sinner, and stayed at the temple all that time, looking, waiting, to be healed from his sin. We know this because the Lord said, “Do not sin again.”
“The water of baptism heals all: the blind, whose spiritual eyes are darkened and cannot distinguish good from evil; the lame, who are paralyzed and neither practice virtue nor make any spiritual progress; and the withered, who are in complete despair because of their inability to accomplish anything good.” ~St Theophylact of Ohrid, commentary on the Gospel of John
Paralysis here is not simply that of the flesh. The paralytic knows he did not live a virtuous and holy life. He is spiritually paralyzed. As already stated by our Lord in John 5:14, the man was physically paralyzed precisely because of his spiritual ailment . “Do not sin again lest something worse befall you.” Because of this, the paralytic knows that he cannot make any spiritual progress on his own; he cannot heal his condition on his own, that is, by doing virtuous acts or through almsgiving. He knows that he will only make spiritual progress with the help from the Lord.
Before we proceed, we must keep in mind that there is some numerology in play here. In Hebrew theology, forty was a number of completeness. So the fact that the man was sick for thirty eight years is an allusion to the moment right before something becomes complete, or whole. That he is at the temple this entire time is a testament to his desire to be healed. He is not at a house being taken care of by someone else. He is looking for a different kind of comfort, a lasting comfort, not of this world, but that only comes from God.
“The perseverance of the paralytic is astounding. For thirty-eight years he lay there waiting, each year hoping to be healed, but always prevented by those who were stronger. Yet he neither gave up, nor despaired. This is why the Lord questioned him, in order to show us the steadfastness of the man, and not of course because He was ignorant of the answer. Not only was it unnecessary for Him to learn the answer, it would have been foolish for anyone to ask such a question, whether a sick man wanted to be healed. The Lord spoke as He did only to bring to our attention the patience of the man. How does he answer? With great kindness and gentleness. “Yea, Lord, I wish to be healed, but I have no man who is able to carry me into the water.” He does not answer with blasphemy; he does not rebuke Christ for asking a stupid question; he does not curse the day of his birth as we often do, fainthearted as we are, when undergoing a much lesser affliction than his. He answers meekly and pleadingly, indeed not knowing to Whom he was speaking, and also intending perhaps to ask Christ to carry him into the water. Note also that Christ did not say, “Wilt thou that I make thee whole?” lest He appear to boast.” ~Theophylact of Ohrid, commentary on the Gospel of John
We see great humility from both our Lord and the paralytic. He did not give up, nor did he despair. But I also believe the paralytic had a keen insight into the depth of his situation, and that this insight made him realize that his physical ailment could only be cured spiritually. Yes, his body is paralyzed, but it is his soul which needs healing. The paralytic knows that the pool will only heal his physical body. No, what the paralytic hungers for is to be cleansed of his sin and his soul be healed.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” – (Matthew 5:6)
Our Lord references the manna falling from heaven during the Exodus multiple times in the Gospel of John. When we are hungry and thirsty we desire our bellies be filled, and be satisfied; we desire to comfort our bodies. As discussed here, we think God changing the stone into bread is the miracle precisely because it gives us what we want, to fill our bodies, or worse, to use as accusation against the Lord. Rather, our Lord shows us that the healing of our souls from their fallen state, that is, Christ “purifying” our sinful nature, is what we should desire. As St Hilary of Poitiers says:
“The blessedness which He appropriates to those who hunger and thirst after righteousness shows that the deep longing of the saints for the doctrine of God shall receive perfect replenishment in heaven; then “they shall be filled.” (commentary on the Beatitudes)
Let us, then, return to the numerology of thirty eight and becoming complete. The paralytic says, “I have no man.” Similar to John 19:5 when Pilate says, “Behold, the man!” here St John is telling us that the paralytic does not have a man, that is, the God-Man to heal him. And so we see that waiting at the temple for thirty eight years shows deep devotion to the observance of the Law, but that the Law could not heal him; it cannot make him whole. The Law does not free us from sin. Only by the God-Man, by fulfilling the law, does the man become free from sin and healed in his soul. This is why Christ tells him to take up his mat and walk, for he now reigns with Christ as Lord of the Sabbath, the Sabbath being made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
This is also another reason why our Lord says, “do not sin again lest something worse befall you.” (John 5:14) Christ gives this warning to the paralytic, that he not fall again into the sin. His sin had only paralyzed his body up to that point. But the illness which stems from sin, if continued, would cause much worse punishments.
“The Lord’s words to the paralytic, ‘Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more,’ confirm the truth of these two doctrines – illness in man stems from sin, and the punishment in hell is eternal. No one can now say, ‘I fornicated only for an hour; my punishment cannot last forever.’ Behold this man: his years of sin were far fewer than the many years of his punishment, which lasted almost a lifetime.” ~St Theophylact of Ohrid, commentary on the Gospel of John
I mention this for two reasons: first, to highlight that physical illness comes from our sin. As stated by St Mark the Ascetic, affliction bring blessings, and how this is a matter of God’s Divine Justice. But also, second, to draw even more attention to the depth of the paralytics’ humility. He does not give up hope, nor did he despair. He accepted the punishment of thirty eight years without grumbling, without cursing the day of his birth. How many times are we offended daily, and cannot even endure it for a second, but rebuke, curse, and blaspheme? The paralytic, he endured his punishment righteously for thirty eight years.
Jesus asks, “Wilt thou be made whole?” The paralytic does not answer, “Yes I want to be made whole,” but shows great humility instead in that his desire is not that his body be made whole, but that his soul be healed and he be lead towards spiritual progress. As St Leo the Great, Pope of Rome says in his commentary on the Beatitudes: “It is nothing bodily, nothing earthly, that this hunger, this thirst seeks for: but it desires to be satiated with the good food of righteousness, and wants to be admitted to all the deepest mysteries, and be filled with the LORD Himself.” The paralytic knows that only “the Man,” that is, the God-Man Incarnate is able to provide this.
Let us emulate the humility of the paralytic, patiently enduring our punishments and afflictions, that we may proceed down the path of spiritual progress and receive greater blessings, lest something worse befall us.