Our Roofs Unroofed (Mark 2:1-12)by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund on February 18, 2021
As I am writing this, it’s late Wednesday afternoon, and I’ve just returned from the Walgreens near our house. I went there to buy several things we didn’t really need. But the roads were passable for the first time in a few days, and we were low on flashlight batteries and matches. I had also convinced myself that chocolate covered pretzels were a necessity. Had they not had them (they did), I’m sure I would’ve thought of something else we needed. I was restless, needed to get out of the house, and wanted to control something, even if that control was exerted through nothing more than buying snacks at the drugstore.
Back in the good old days of spring, when quarantine lockdowns were new and all we had to worry about was a global pandemic and economic anxiety, I remember sitting in our seminary apartment and wanting so badly to have some place to go. I wanted to trim my beard, put on a fresh shirt, and fold a clean handkerchief into my pocket. I remember wanting to be around people and wanting to have to get ready to be around people. The problem was that everyone was at home; there really wasn’t anywhere to go.
This week was different. The roads were icy and unsafe to drive on, and it felt a little like being quarantined within a quarantine. After three days, I felt myself not so much wanting some place to go, but wanting the ability to go somewhere. To get pizza. To the bank. To pick-up HEB curbside. The destination didn’t matter; I didn’t even necessarily need other people to be involved. I just wanted the option, the agency of movement. I certainly didn’t care whether or not I had on a fresh shirt or a clean handkerchief.
As you know, this week wasn’t difficult just because the roads were icy. Power was out or, at best, intermittent. For many, pipes in their homes froze and burst or otherwise stopped providing water. Others had a ‘boil water’ advisory, which is hard to manage if your power is out and your stove is electric. Laundry, cooking, staying warm—all were uncertain. And with power out, it wasn’t possible to distract ourselves by zoning out on Netflix.
The point is that not only were many of us unable to go anywhere, but many of us were also unsure of whether we could safely remain at home. It’s one of the hardest questions, and it’s one many folks live with all the time: what do you do when you can neither leave nor safely remain?
I don’t have an answer. But this afternoon, as I stood in line at Walgreens with my snacks and batteries and Bic lighters, I began to think about the paralytic Jesus heals in this week’s gospel. I was restless because the security and personal agency to which I am accustomed were threatened by icy roads, freezing temperatures, and unreliable necessities like heat and water. My trip to Walgreen’s had given me a little reprieve, some space to think.
I began to wonder if the paralytic on his mat, carried by four others, lived in a more permanent way with the feelings I was experiencing only temporarily with the winter storm. Is this man every really able to just go somewhere when he wants to? He is carried to the house where Jesus is by four people we know almost nothing about, each of them carrying one corner of the mat on which he’s lying. Did the paralyzed man ask to be taken to Jesus? Or did these four—relatives? neighbors?—pick him up and carry him without affording him the dignity of asking first?
Given his physical condition, he would’ve been unable to farm in Galilee, and almost certainly unable to work in the mostly manual trades there. Did he live alone? Did he have reliable shelter? Did he have access to enough food and drinkable water? Was he ever really able to remain safely in place, even in his own home?
When they get to the house where Jesus is, the house is overrun and there’s no way inside. This situation isn’t accessible for a paralyzed man like him. Perhaps he’s used to that. But the four carriers aren’t having it. They climb up onto the earthen roof, dig through it, and lower him down to Jesus. Again, how is the paralyzed man feeling? How are the people carrying him feeling? Is he silent? Are they? Is their faith mixed with both compassion and resentment? Are the onlookers in the crowd angry that he’s skipping the line?
As is so often the case with Mark, we don’t know. What we do know is that they pull sections of the roof off to get this man to Jesus. They dig through the clay of it. They literally unroof the roof. There’s something destructive even in this lifegiving work, something akin to the convulsions that shook the man from whom Jesus cast out an unclean spirit (1:25-26).
You can imagine Jesus’ surprise as he sat in the home. Suddenly crumbs and chunks of clay fall to the floor where he sits, and then a shaft of sunlight pierces the dark interior. From Jesus’ perspective, it’s weirdly reminiscent of the heavens being torn apart at his baptism: a strange ripping above; a new presence from on high inserting itself into the scene; a descent which makes it clearer who Jesus is.
Only here, it is not God who calls Jesus, “Son,” but Jesus who calls the paralyzed man, Son. After beholding the lengths to which the four mat-carriers were prepared to go, Jesus proclaims that the man’s sins are forgiven, and then heals him (2:5, 10). Jesus is shown as powerful here, but there’s a sense in which his own agency is limited. He’s surrounded by crowds inside the house and out. There’s nowhere to go, even if he wanted to, so Jesus does what Jesus does: he forgives and heals.
But it’s not just a crowd in search of healing who are there. This is Jesus’ first encounter with the scribes. Mark has mentioned them to us before (1:22), but they’ve never shown up in-person until now. Jesus forgives and heals the paralytic in their presence, and moreover, he calls attention to what he is doing (2:8-10). They accuse him of blasphemy (2:7), a charge which will get Jesus crucified in the end (14:64).
We readers are getting a sense of the conflict that is coming: Jesus himself can neither leave the path he is on nor remain safely on it. There will be a cross.
There’s an odd symmetry between the paralyzed man and Jesus. In incredibly different ways, neither can leave and neither can remain. The paralyzed man cannot leave his home to go where he chooses, when he chooses. Likewise, Jesus himself can no longer go into certain towns (1:45), and he’s hemmed in on all sides by the crowd (2:2).
Furthermore, the paralyzed man’s existence is precarious. He is at the mercy of his four carriers not only to get where he is going, but for all of his needs (2:3). He cannot safely remain as he is. And what if these four drop him? Leave him behind? Abandon him? Likewise, Jesus’ ministry is becoming increasingly well known (1:28, 1:39, 1:44-45). He cannot safely remain as he is within the relative safety of Capernaum. More and more Jesus’ actions and even his death will be determined by the “crowd,” which appears explicitly in this passage for the first time and will follow Jesus throughout the Gospel (2:4, 2:13, 4:1, 5:21, 6:45, 7:14, 8:2, 10:1, 12:37, et al).
What do you do when you can neither leave nor safely remain? I don’t know exactly, and I’m trying to resist easy answers. Most of all, I’m just not sure I’ve ever been really aware of this question until this week. I take so much agency, material security, and emotional support for granted. I’ve never had to think about it. And even now, I likely would never have thought about it had there not been a global pandemic, months of political unrest, and a once-in-a-generation winter storm. And even then I still had snacks in my hand when the question occurred to me.
All I’m sure of is that, for those of us who are mostly secure most of the time, there is wisdom to be had in not shrinking from this question. There has been so much for so long now, crisis within crisis, riot and plague and storm. Our roofs are being unroofed. At my best, I am only able to ask of God, What does this have to teach me?
If I have an answer, it’s this: I feel that God is lowering into our midst the vulnerabilities we so easily ignore or rationalize away or dismiss or counter. Last week, we read about a leper (1:40-45). A man who was likely alone and without physical affection. Jesus touched him, made physical contact with another’s uncleanness, and in turn had to retreat to the lonely places himself. This week, I’ve tried to sketch a similar parallel between this paralytic’s limited physical agency and security and that of Jesus’ own precariousness.
So, too, with us. This year, many of us have had to live with an acute isolation, and yet this isolation is a reality with which many folks live all the time. This week, many of us have had to live with our physical agency and security in jeopardy, and yet these realities are ones with which many folks live all the time. Like Jesus and the leper’s isolation, like Jesus and the paralytic’s physical limits and insecurity, we are encountering and experiencing each other’s very real pain.
God tears the roof from the world. We are lowered by unnamed blessings. May we become the Christ within who receives.
 The Greek here is literally that: unroofing the roof.