[Homily. John 5:17-20. Live-streamed Mass. 17 March 2021]
In the Gospel of John Jesus works out seven signs prior to the ultimate sign of the Resurrection. Today’s Gospel follows on the third sign, the healing of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda. You will recall from yesterday’s Gospel, for many years the paralytic hoped to be cured in the healing waters of the pool. Jesus approached him and asked, “Do you want to be well?” He responded that he had no one to help him reach the pool when the healing waters were stirred. To him Jesus simply said, “Rise take up your mat and walk.” He did. Immediately he was cured.
But the sign was set in a context of controversy. For the cure had taken place on a Sabbath. When the paralytic followed Jesus’ instruction to take up his mat and walk, the Jews chided him for breaking the Sabbath. But he responded that the man who had cured him had told him to take up his mat and walk, so he did. They asked him who it was who had cured him. He did not know. For Jesus had slipped away before he could find out. Later, however, in the temple, Jesus found him, and had an intimate word with him. “You are well now; do not sin anymore, so nothing worse may happen to you.” Jesus knew his background; he knew how he had gotten paralyzed; he knew the persons involved, the mistakes he had made. He linked his illness with his past life of sin. He warned him to sin no more, lest something worse befall him. Interestingly enough, it is not clear from the Gospel text whether the cured man took the advice of Jesus. So often, even the most intimate encounters with Jesus do not end in conversion; that we know from our experience. What is only clear is that he reported to the Jews that it was Jesus who had cured him. The result was: “they began to persecute him because he’d cured the man on the Sabbath.”
Our Gospel for today gives an even stronger reason for why they persecuted him. They actually wanted to kill him. Jesus had infuriated the self-righteous defenders of their Jewish teachings and culture. Jesus had not only broken the Sabbath in healing the paralytic. On the Sabbath, he said: “My Father is at work until now even on this Sabbath day, so I am at work.“ The third commandment to keep holy the Sabbath day was based on the creation account in Genesis where the Lord after six days of creation rested on the seventh day. For this reason Jews were not to work on the Sabbath day; they were not to plough their fields, not to clean their houses, not even to “take up their mats and walk.” They were to rest, as God rested. But the rest God entered into did not mean he had stopped being God. God rested from his work of creation. But he continued to work in preserving, protecting, reproducing, unfolding, fulfilling what had been created; he continued to work in exercising his divine wisdom and power, his goodness and mercy to those whom he created not only six days a week but seven, twenty-four seven. In this context, Jesus’ words, “My Father is at work until now, so I am at work” were extraordinarily inflammatory. Only God, resting from creation, continues “to work until now” in making the sun to rise each day on the just and the unjust, in making the moon and the stars shine at night, in making the seasons change; he continues to rule from the heavens, to show us his compassion and providence, and to work out our redemption. For Jesus to claim that this God was his Father was blasphemous to Jewish ears. How could this mere man be claiming God to be his Father?
But on top of that, for Jesus to claim that because his Father works on the Sabbath so does he, this was doubly blasphemous, for he was claiming for himself the prerogative to work in the unique manner in which the Father works on the Sabbath – in sustaining creation, in working out sinful humanity’s redemption. What the Father does, Jesus does. “The Son cannot do anything on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for what he does the Son will do also. For the Father loves his Son and shows him everything that he himself does, and he will show him greater works than these, so that you may be amazed” (19-20). The claim was doubly blasphemous for the self-righteous Jews. For others, however, it elicited awe and amazement…
In this context, Jesus claims two powers in union with the Father: the power to give life and the power to judge.
“For just as the Father raises the dead and gives life, so also does the Son give life to whomsoever he wishes” (21). “For just as the Father has life in himself, so also he gave to his Son the possession of life in himself” (26). Life, indeed, relevant for the human race was created through Jesus. “What came to be through him was life, and the life was the light of the human race;” the Prologue proclaims, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). Later in John’s Gospel, in the context of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, he would say, “I have come to bring life, life to the full” (Jn 10:10). The Son has the power and the life and the mission to give life.
But the Son also has the power to judge life. First, in the manner of a realized eschatology, when one who believes in him now is already spared any future condemnation. “Amen, amen I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and will not come to condemnation, but has passed from death to life. Amen, amen I say to you, the hour is coming and is now here when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” (24). This is Jesus’ own judgement, based on his intimate knowledge of how his Father judges those who believe in him.
But Jesus is judge, second, in the sense of a future eschatology, of Jesus being the future judge of the living and the dead who will be resurrected to undergo final judgement. “And he gave him power to exercise judgement, because he is the Son of Man. Do not be amazed at this, because the hour is coming in which all those who are in tombs will hear his voice and will come out, those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation” (28-29). He is the Son of Man who will come in his glory to judge all the assembled nations before him, separating the sheep from the goats, inviting the faithful to enter his Kingdom, consigning the faithless to eternal flame (cf. Mt. 26:31-43). How Jesus judges however is completely aligned with the judgement of the Father: “I cannot do anything on my own. I judge as I hear, and my judgement is just because I do not seek my own will, but the will of the one who sent me” (30).
The non-believing Jews rejected Jesus as the source and judge of life. But that he was the source and judge of life, was the sign associated with the healing of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda. It is the shaft of light offered us today. In this season of Lent we can reject it as outlandish and completely irrelevant to our lives as we enter into the fourth industrial revolution and work to figure out how we can beat the pandemic through human science and global organization in a world of human reason. We can continue to say we are the source of civilized human life, we are the hope of our humane human future, and have the capacity to govern ourselves combining the strength of the State and with the will of the sovereign people as in Myanmar, or in China, or in the United Kingdom, or in the Philippines. We do quite well here, we say; we make our human life, work out our human future, judge our human failures. We do not need Jesus.
Or we take this as an occasion to examine our faith, hope, and love. as it gives our lives meaning: faith in Jesus, source and judge of human life, through whom, as the letter to the Romans discloses, we find peace with God and have access to the grace in which we stand. We boast in the hope of the glory of God…boasting even in our afflictions which result in perseverance, which results in character, which results in hope, hope that does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, the love of God which he manifested to us in Jesus, who even while we were sinners suffered and died for us. Through him we have reconciliation with God and life (cf Romans 5:1-12).