Seeing unexpected things (Luke 5:17–26)

In Luke 5:17–26, we have the story of a paralytic who was brought to Jesus for healing. There was such a crowd around Jesus in the house where he was teaching that the friends who brought the paralytic resorted to letting the man down through the roof to get him into Jesus’s presence. They really wanted Jesus to heal him, and really believed that he could!

So how does Jesus respond? By pronouncing that the man’s sins were forgiven! Not what they were asking for or expecting, right? Certainly not what the religious teachers in the crowd were expecting—or even willing to accept. They called it blasphemy, because they knew that only God has the authority to forgive sins. Jesus—in order, Luke tells us, to show that “the son of man” had authority on to forgive sins, then took the further step of healing the man of his paralysis, so that he stood up and walked out, praising God. The crowd had been too think for his friends to get him in, but when he stood up, evidently the crowd parted like the Red Sea to let him walk out.

And what about the onlookers? Luke tells us:

⸋καὶ ἔκστασις ἔλαβεν ἅπαντας καὶ ἐδόξαζον τὸν θεὸν⸌ καὶ ἐπλήσθησαν φόβου λέγοντες ὅτι εἴδομεν παράδοξα σήμερον.

And amazement seized them all and they praised God and they were filled with fear, saying “We have seen paradoxa today!”

The two little sigla in the Greek text (a superscripted box and then later a little superscripted backslash) are from the modern editors, who want us to be aware that a number of manuscripts omit the first part of the verse (“and amazement seized them all and they praised God”). I don’t care about that—probably just mistake, but anyway, the amazement and maybe even the praise are implied in the second part of the verse: “We have seen paradoxa today!”

This word pardoxa occurs only here in the New Testament, but it is a common word. Etymologically (and yes, I know that etymologies aren’t definitions) it means contrary (para) to opinion or belief (doxa). Throughout Greek literature it indicates things that are unexpected, incredible, strange, and like some of our English words for such, it then gets used also to mean wonderful, admirable. For example, some athletes had this word applied to them, almost like a title: in the same way that people came to refer to Alexander the Great, inscriptions show that some outstanding athletes came to be called so-and-so the Paradoxos.

But the word remains two-edged in later Christian usage. When Eusebius lifts a phrase from John’s story of the marriage at Cana to refer to the period in the life of Jesus when he was starting to perform miracles, where John says “this was the first of the sēmeia (signs) that Jesus did” (John 2:11), Eusebius, who like ancient Christian writers in general didn’t look up the verse but just cited it from memory, came up with “this was the first of the paradoxa that Jesus did” (Ecclesiastical History 3.24.11). But the word was also used negatively, for example, for the heretical teachings of Arius. I won’t throw in a lot of examples and references—they’re in the standard Greek lexicons that I have piled all around me at the moment—because I want to get to the thing that all of this leaves me wondering about.

Which is: We all have our expectations, do we not? Our sense of what it normal, which readily becomes our sense of what is possible, and even (such is our rigidity and reactivity) what is even permissible. We have our opinions, and if we encounter phenomena—things people do or say, facts on the ground, things we see with our own eyes—that run counter to our opinions and expectations, we are more likely to filter them out, or reject them vehemently, than to see them.

There is more than one miracle in this text in Luke. Perhaps the greatest miracle is not that Jesus healed a paralytic, but that those standing around were able to say in the aftermath: “We have seen paradoxa today!” And to give glory to God. Far more likely that they should have been unable to see what they did not expect. But they saw! And because they saw, they gave glory to God.

But not all of them. The strong implication in Luke, if you take this passage in the context of the whole story, is that the religious teachers (Pharisaioi kai nomodidaskaloi) were probably unable to accept the paradoxa. They probably didn’t have a problem with the healing. For both them and Jesus, the healing was a matter of lesser consequence. The real issue was the forgiveness. Not permissible!

Paradoxa is plural. There are two marvelous, unexpected, incredible, and—depending on the orientation of your mind and your heart—either unacceptable or praise-inspiring things in this text. One is the miraculous physical healing of the paralytic. For many of us today, our minds balk at that. But the other is this: without being told what the man’s sins were (and Luke doesn’t tell us either!), and without even seeing any sign of contrition or repentance or even awareness of wrongdoing on that man’s part, but only his utter disability and the faith of his friends, Jesus pronounced forgiveness. And for many of us today, as for the religious teachers in that setting, our hearts balk at this. We reject such undeserved and unasked-for forgiveness, and we are in danger of rejecting Jesus, the forgiver, even while with our mouths and hands we praise him.

To hear Jesus speak, and to see his deeds, is to see paradoxa.

How about this for a daily prayer: “Lord, grant that today some good thing that I do not expect—that I do not hope for, do not believe to be possible, do not think to be even desirable, or even permissible—may happen in my presence, and give me the grace to see it, and to recognize it as your doing, and to praise you for it.”

One thought on “Seeing unexpected things (Luke 5:17–26)

  1. That’s a good thought, James, even though most of us would do well to see something like that once in our lifetimes.
    And I really appreciate your substantive, thoughtful posts in recent days.


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