Of Excuses and Accountability
Making excuses comes almost as naturally as eating or sleeping, and it begins at a young age. We are wired to cover our sins with self-justification and shifting blame. But for a doulos charged with service in the Lord's household, there is no room for excuses. Jesus offers wholeness and new life, demonstrated by the story in John's Gospel of the paralytic man who was healed despite the excuses and presumed accountability to the old way of life.
Fr. Timothy Lowe shares how with this new life comes freedom from excuses and new accountability to walk in the life-giving commandments and to "Go and sin no more."
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Bunton, the executive director for the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. And with me today is my co host, Fr. Timothy Lowe, former Rector at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. Christ is risen!
Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:28
Indeed, He is risen! Hollie, it's nice to be here again.
Hollie Benton 0:32
Yes, it is. So let's talk about making excuses, something so common to the human experience. I know when I'm questioned about what am I doing? Why am I doing it that way? Or even if I sense a raised eyebrow, I'm really quick to defend myself and make excuses justifying myself. We know that that's not what were called to do as servant leaders formed by the biblical instruction to function as a doulos, or a slave, a servant in the Lord's household. Rather than "make excuses in sin," as the psalmist says, we are to "let a righteous man strike or rebuke me." Because really, on the last day of judgment, there's no hiding. There's no excuses. All will be called to account to a reckoning at the dread judgment seat of Jesus Christ. So better to practice personal accountability now then feed this habit of making excuses. What do you think, Father Timothy?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 1:29
Well, I do agree with you, Hollie. I mean, excuses are usually because we failed at something that we know we shouldn't have, or something we really aren't interested in doing. And therefore we make excuses. I like that parable in multiple gospels and Luke about the guy throwing a grand banquet and sends His servants out to gather the people. And it tickles me because one says, I bought five yoke of oxen, I bought a piece of land, but the one that really tickles me is, I just got married is like, he just assumes that he's on his honeymoon, you know, he automatically gets a free pass. But then, of course, the parable goes on, and, as you said, brings judgment to those that fail to heed the invitation, and therefore cast out. But the good news is, there's room for other people. And that's the point of the gospel, those in the highways and the byways. So you know, you don't want to be there? Fine. You are not the Alpha and the Omega. God will make sure his house is full. So there's always that thread of warning and judgment that you just talked about.
Hollie Benton 2:27
As we record today, we know that the Sunday of the Paralytic is just around the corner. And so we'd like to turn to John's Gospel for today's podcast. What is it about the story of the paralytic that holds an important place in the special Sundays that follow Posca? First, it's Thomas Sunday, then the Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women. And then the third Sunday after Posca is always the Sunday of the Paralytic.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 2:53
Well, the Gospel lessons for the Paschal season mostly are taken from John except the myrrhbearing women, because they want to make historical connections. But the issue is new life, the new life, the new life given to us in Christ and the resurrection, new life given to us in baptism. And so the church focuses on that. And you'll see that specifically in today's Gospel. You'll see the next Sunday when we go from the fifth chapter to the fourth chapter, the Samaritan woman, new life. And then later on one of my favorites, the Sunday of the Blind Man and John nine, before we get to focusing on the Ascension and Pentecost, so the issue always for John is new life. How do we understand what is given to us in Christ? It's the grace and truth as opposed to the Mosaic law. And he wants to act that out through these teaching, I don't want to say parables, but these teaching stories. And that's what you have to understand with John, highly symbolic gospel, teaching, teaching, teaching stories about this new life and who Jesus is.
Hollie Benton 3:50
So let's turn to the passage in the Gospel of John chapter five. "After this, there was a feast of the Jews and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep gate, a pool and Hebrew, Beth-za'tha, which has five porticos. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for 38 years. When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there for a long time, he said to him, do you want to be healed? The sick man answered him, Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled. And while I am going another steps down before me. Jesus said to him, rise, take up your pallet, and walk. And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who was cured, It is the Sabbath. It is not lawful for you to carry your pallet. But he answered them, the man who healed me said to me, Take up your pallet and walk. They asked him, Who is the man who said to you take up your pallet and walk? Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn and there was a crowd in that place. Afterward, Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, See you are well! Sin no more that nothing worse befall you. The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him." So Fr. Timothy, whenever I read this passage, it always strikes me as odd that Jesus would ask the paralytic whether he wants to be healed. I mean, why wouldn't he? Isn't it obvious? But it does cause me as a hearer to pause and consider that desiring to be healed may not be obvious, given a sickness or an ailment. And what's even odder is that the paralytic man doesn't even answer yes. Instead, he makes excuses about why he can't get into the pool, assuming that it would bring some degree of healing or at least relief. But then on the other hand, I think there are clues here that connect to John's Gospel as a fulfillment to the promises of the Old Testament. For example, the five porticos at the pool might be an allusion to the Pentateuch. And the man's age of 38 years might recall the time of the people Israel wandering in the wilderness spoken of in Deuteronomy. Furthermore, the place of the pool at the sheep gate, calls to mind the shepherd imagery used in Ezekiel. And then what we have in John's gospel here, Jesus will prove to be the Good Shepherd, which is contrasted against the Jewish leaders who criticize Jesus for not keeping the Sabbath, yet could do nothing to help this poor, needy, paralytic man. So what's going on here, Fr. Timothy?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 6:41
The impotency of the situation is clear, and that you brought in the Old Testament allusions and symbolism which has to be the background for the Gospel of John, because he's always contrasting, for lack of better words, the old, the Mosaic law, and also with the newness that is brought with the person of Jesus and His teaching. The point is, is that he is in a hopeless situation, that is what is given to him. And so to even think that there could be healing, there could be something else that the Messiah could in fact, come and bring the healing of the lame, the blind and whatnot, as talked about in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Fr. Paul Tarazi talks about it in his commentary as well, that this is the connection. And so this specific pericope is so odd, as you pointed out, because he's not asking for anything, he doesn't even know who Jesus is. This is only chapter five. In John's gospel, a lot of his work and teaching is done in Jerusalem. Whereas in the other gospels, he doesn't show up except at the end to judge and to be arrested and betrayed and crucified. So John's Gospel and its symbolism and its relationship between the Mosaic Law, the grace and truth, that we read about, in the prologue that we read for the Paschal gospel is all being manifested here at the same time. So what is interesting is that it's being acted out, okay, it's being acted out. You have been brought so far, but you are still in need of new life. And so if there's an image of hopelessness and despair, it's this guy. And that's why when Christ asked him if he wants to be healed, we all say, well, that's a dumb question. That's just just a dumb question. But what I like about it is Christ does not wait for an answer. He does not wait for an answer. He asks him, the guy, as you say, makes an excuse. And Christ gives him a command. Command. No question about do you believe that I can do this Lord, I believe Help my unbelief, none of those sorts of dialogues. He asks him, he says, I'm here hopelessly, and Christ says, Take up your pallet and walk. It is the simple command. Okay, he does it without elaboration, without any display. And what I like here is that he doesn't even know who Jesus is. I like the fact that Jesus just sort of disappears and the guy, he does what he was supposed to do, rise, take up your pallet and walk. He gets up, and he goes. Of course, that leads again to the second encounter, which also is odd because we're not expecting all of a sudden he encounters the Jews who are the Sabbath police. And technically, he's breaking the Sabbath. And so they hold them accountable, according to their law, according to their teaching. And this is an important element, they are holding him accountable for that which they understood to be a commandment, and therefore something you shouldn't violate. So they question him. Who? Who? As if he's not responsible, Who told you to do this? And then he doesn't even know. It's extraordinary and bewildering, Hollie, I believe it is. But then, of course, he's found again. This time in the temple. The sheep gate would have been outside the temple, sort of in the water pools related to that compound and the ritual ablutions and whatnot. And so now he's in the temple as a full person. Christ encounters him. It says later Jesus found him in the temple. See, you have been made well, do not sin anymore so that nothing worst happens to you. For those of us, it's Paschal season, celebrating the resurrection of Christ, the new life, the outpouring of God's mercy and grace, and its fullness, this is the punch line. We are now accountable not to the Sabbath laws, simply to the one who has given us new life. And we all know that this punch line also hits us because like who cannot sin, right?
Who cannot sin? In Matthew it's, Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. How is that possible? As we were talking earlier, we want to massage these difficulties and make it more palatable. But I think this is where we fail with difficult harsh sayings. We are called not to sin, in other words, to heed the voice and teaching of grace, without even discussion, without having profound insight. This is super-imposed on the faithful. The thing I like about so many healing stories in John's gospel, is the paralytic does not have a name, it's not an individual, you see, he stands for all of us by definition, those of us who were paralyzed, sick, lame, or whatever, blind, it doesn't make any difference. If we have received the healing, the grace of God, If Christ is the Messiah, who brings all of this, then we have to respond. So I say to all of our listeners, as we sort of waltz through towards the third week of the Paschal season, there is a punch line. And you mentioned it earlier about judgment, okay, there will always be judgment, and so we must walk in this newness of life. Or else, this is what I don't want to massage. We talked earlier about making excuses. We make excuses for our behavior all the time, we learn it from two years old, and we're told to do something we don't want to do. We learn it as teenagers when we're almost impossible to live with. And then it just continues, it continues this sort of dumbing down, and someone has to hold us accountable, before God holds us accountable. So this punch line, do not send any more so that nothing worse, we can imagine the worse. I guarantee you. I've been a priest for several decades, and I've witnessed all kinds of tragedies and human suffering. It's easy for us to imagine the helplessness of 38 years of paralysis. You go from hopelessness to hope. And therefore, you don't want to go back. You don't want to go back because you've tasted it and you've seen it, you lived it. That's why sometimes I'm saying why do we baptize babies? Let's just wait till they're in the pit of despair. So that when they cry out, they cry out in seriousness, or when they're given a gift. You see willy nilly, that's what I like about this story. It's willy nilly. Oh, he sees him. He's been there for a long time. Okay, let's do something. Let's enter into the hopelessness. We don't need to talk about the hopelessness of Ukraine now and the ramifications. Even in my lilly urban suburban neighborhood, talk about this stuff as if their life in Myrtle Beach is deeply threatened by what's going on. No, no, no. It's psychological. You feel the weight of it. So anyway, this is a great story. And then of course, later on after the blind man goes back and tells the Jews Oh, I see who was the guy Jesus. And then it says in chapter five, okay, now they're finding ways how to kill him. It's one thing to say, Oh, they're disturbed. No, no, no. Chapter five, John is so shocking. In chapter five, they're already seeking ways to kill him, the underlying current, the conflict between Christ as the Messiah, the new teacher, superseding all of the old or the past that they also represent, there is a tension and that tension of course will carry out to the rest of the Gospel to the end. John's Gospel is so highly symbolic that it is without a doubt must be read literarily. Okay. Not literally, literarily. Okay. And John even makes that point at the end in chapter 20. Where he says, Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book. But these are written that may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. It is about having life in him. And his name means also in his teaching, okay, because there's no magic. We gave up magic when I finished reading Harry Potter.
Hollie Benton 14:47
Absolutely. Literarily, I like that a lot. I have to say that Fr. Paul Tarazi criticizes the translation of xeron in Greek, biblical texts render as paralyzed but he says really, this is dried up, it's withered, which really connects it nicely to Ezekiel, and that passage that we read on Holy Friday. The Dry Bones passage, "Prophesy to these bones and say to them, O Dry Bones, hear the word of the Lord. And He said to me, Son of Man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost. We are clean cut off." So that utter, utter hopelessness. And then we find our only hope, through Jesus Christ, who says, Pick up your mat and walk, get with it. We've got commandments to carry out here.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 15:41
And that's the way to carry the story forward to all the following generations. I mean, here we are in 2022. And we're discussing this ancient text with its meaning and purpose. And so yes, yes. We have to be Biblically literate to understand that. Yes, yes.
Hollie Benton 15:57
Yeah. I'm wondering Fr. Timothy, do you find that this man now healed from his paralysis, his withered-ness, his dryness, might be risking to be paralyzed yet again, by self-justification, marked by his self defensive excuses that he makes when the Jews accused him of breaking the Sabbath? He replied, Well, it's not my fault. It's the guy who healed me. He made me do it. And then even later, after Jesus came to him a second time and says, Sin no more, you're well, what we hear next is that the man went back and told the Jewish leadership to point out that, oh, here's the guy who made me do it. It's him. So I'm just wondering if there's any risk here, any excuses, in this self justification. The man is healed, and he's free now to walk in obedience to the commandments of Christ. But instead, he's walking back to the Jewish leaders to explain and justify an answer to them.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 16:55
According to the details of the story, because there's not much development, boom, boom, boom, right? He doesn't yet understand the life, what has been given to him, he doesn't understand it yet. And so when Jesus punches him, you have been made well, that he knows, we're only in the fifth chapter, you got to read the rest of the book to see what Christ means by, Go and sin no more. You can think of it in terms of the Mosaic Law and keeping those commandments. But what is the new law? Christ will elaborate that to the disciples in the washing of the feet, in chapter 13, 14 15, and 16. He will explain himself. So as a reader, you start at the beginning, and you continue. And then by the end of the book, you should understand what he means by, Go and sin no more. When you see the sinful disciples, when you see them abandoning him, when you see the acting out of the killing. So we can cut him some slack in the context of the flow of the story, the dramatic arcing of where it's going, okay, we can always make the case. And I often joke, actually I did a retreat on baptism this past Lent with the underlying comment is, you guys don't know what baptism is. And even if you're my age, I barely know what baptism is. Which means we got into something we knew nothing really about what we're committing to. I always laugh because it's like getting married. Like, who really knows what getting married is like? We don't fully understand. But it's not about understanding. That comes with time, wisdom, right? Gray hair, it is about the doing, the listening to trusting the voice of the shepherd or the teacher. And in time, we may acquire wisdom, but it has nothing to do about the doing part. The doing part remains flat. There's no development. We can make excuses for the toddler, we can make excuses for the teenager. But there comes a time where no, no, no, no, no, no, it's over. So we'll cut him some slack as he tattles and doesn't yet perhaps understand the tension between the new life and the old life. But there comes a time. And this is where teaching comes in, I think, and accountability that we just shut up and do, whether we understand, have figured things out. You should have seen me as a teenager, Hollie, in thinking that you could figure it out, you had control and power.
Hollie Benton 19:04
Oh, thank you, Father Timothy.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 19:09
You're most welcome.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
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