7th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Freedom Through Dis-Location
Freedom Through Dis-Location
Readings: Isaiah 43:18-19,21-22,24-25; Psalm 40:2-5,13-14; 2 Corinthians 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12
Picture: cc publicinsomniac
Sisters and brothers, are you familiar with the name Harry Houdini? I think many of us have heard of him. He was a magician and escape artist who became famous in the early 1900s. Among his many talents was the extraordinary ability to free himself after being tied up with a rope, or a chain, or even a straitjacket. No matter how tightly he was bound, Houdini somehow managed to escape. How did he do it?
Of course, I myself would never try it. But, if I were tied up like that, my first response would probably be to try to find some way to cut the rope, or snap the chains, or tear the straitjacket. To break the fetters that were holding me fast. Houdini’s approach was rather different. I’m not sure how far this is true, but I’ve read somewhere that part of his secret was the ability to dislocate his shoulders at will. I know. It sounds painful, doesn’t it? But this was apparently what enabled him to slip his bonds. Instead of breaking the chains that bound him, he shifted his own shape. Instead of stretching his bonds, he found a way to shrink himself. By dislocating his shoulders, he made himself smaller, and was then able to slip through the gaps and get free.
To find freedom by first shifting my own shape. This is an approach that looks a bit like what our Mass readings are trying to teach us today. Both in the first reading and the gospel, we find people who are tied up in some way. In the first reading, the Israelites are a conquered people. A people in exile. But God promises to free them. They’re told that, for them, God is making a road in the wilderness, paths in the wilds. In the words of the worship song popularised by Don Moen, for them God will make a way where there seems to be no way. But, if God is making a path to freedom for the people, then the people must be willing to walk in it. To gain their freedom, they need to turn to God. And this is precisely the problem. The people are stubborn. They refuse to listen. Not only are they tied up by the chain of exile in a foreign land, they are also trapped in their own sinfulness. Which is why God complains: Jacob, you have not invoked me, you have not troubled yourself on my behalf. Instead you have burdened me with your sins, troubled me with your iniquities. In order for the people to be truly free, they must first change their own spiritual shape. They need to be willing to dis-locate their hearts. They need to be centred no longer on themselves, but on God. As with Harry Houdini, so too with the Israelites: freedom comes through dis-location.
It is when we keep this in mind, that we begin to make some sense of what is happening in the gospel. Here too, we find people who are tied up in some way. People who are not free. The paralytic is trapped by his disability. He cannot walk. He lies on a mat, and has to rely on his friends to carry him. But Jesus’ response to this man is striking. Instead of immediately healing his handicap, instead of breaking the bonds of his paralysis, Jesus’ first concern is to forgive the man’s sins. With this approach, Jesus reminds us of what we have already seen in the first reading: That even if, from time to time, we may find ourselves trapped by certain external chains–such as exile or illness–it is the interior spiritual straitjacket of selfishness and sin that is more deadly. So that the way to freedom begins not with a healing of the body, but with a dis-location of the heart. First one needs to be re-centred on God. The other things will follow.
Without the willingness to be dis-located in this way, even a miraculous healing will not help us. Isn’t this what we see in the scribes in the gospel? Although they are not physically disabled, the scribes are spiritually paralysed by their own strict interpretation of the Law. Even though Jesus heals the paralytic, they are unable to recognise Jesus as the One who is the Law’s fulfilment. As the second reading reminds us, in him is found the yes to all God’s promises. As with the Israelites in the first reading, so too with the scribes in the gospel, there is no true freedom without a prior dis-location.
In contrast, notice what happens when people turn to God. The most striking example in the gospel is, of course, the paralytic himself. After his physical and spiritual healing, we’re told that not only does he gain the ability to walk, but he also inspires other people to sing the praises of God. Through his willingness to obey what Jesus tells him to do–to get up, pick up his stretcher, and go off home–the healed man helps others to dis-locate their own hearts in the direction of God. After he himself is freed, the former paralytic helps others to gain their freedom.
But he is not the only one who does this. Remember how it was that the paralytic came to be healed in the first place. Remember the actions of his four friends. In order to bring their paralysed companion before the Lord, they took the trouble to climb up and to strip off a roof. Why did they do this? They must have been thinking only of the welfare of the one who could do nothing to help himself. But that’s not all. Not only did they wish to help their friend, they also put their trust in the power of Jesus to heal him. And, because of their faith, their friend was cured in body and in spirit. The paralytic gained his freedom because he had friends whose hearts were in the right place. Friends willing to dis-locate their hearts away from self towards the helpless. Friends who turned away from stubborn disbelief towards firm faith in God. Which is why I think that what these four friends did was far greater than any performance by the great Harry Houdini himself. Houdini was willing to dislocate his own shoulders to free himself, to make himself famous. These men dis-located their hearts to help a helpless person find freedom.
And it is perhaps a happy coincidence–if you believe in coincidences–that we are reminded of their example today. Even as our country continues to analyse and to discuss our latest national budget. As you know, the reviews received so far from the experts have, in general, been very positive. Quite clearly, through this budget, more is being done to help those who are most at risk. Especially those who are limited by the frailty of old age, or those constrained by some disability of one kind or another. As one academic puts it, whatever its limitations, this is a budget with heart. Now, sisters and brothers, I must tell you that I myself struggle just to understand the accounts of the tiny spirituality centre where I work, let alone evaluate the budget for a whole nation.
But, even so, I have a duty to ask myself how my Christian faith should inform my view of the budget. And this is where our readings can be helpful. For they remind me that, although a budget like this can go a long way towards helping those most in need, it cannot do everything. The government cannot do everything. For at least two reasons: First, the helpless will only truly find help, when others like me are willing to let our hearts be moved with compassion. Second, and perhaps more importantly, as Christians, we believe that true freedom involves far more than mere material well-being. True freedom comes about when hearts are centred no longer on the self, but on God. And how else will others learn about God, if we do not bear witness? How will they learn about Jesus, if we do not share our faith?
Sisters and brothers, as we begin the season of Lent this week, how are we being invited to dis-locate our hearts so that others might find freedom today?