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The Struggle to Be Human

August 1, 2018

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, July 29, 2018

Psalm 67         Mark 2:1-12

I have set myself two goals as we read our way through the Gospel of Mark this year in worship. The first is to try each week to hear something of the whole story of the gospel rather than the singular Sunday stories we are given by the lectionary. The second goal is  to lift up aspects of the story that are less commonly preached on. Now, it so happens that the lectionary takes a break from this gospel for the next four weeks, which conveniently, are the four weeks of my vacation. So we will use today to look back at a story the lectionary passed over earlier this year due to the timing of Easter.[i]

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” —he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

We are familiar with the basic narrative. Jesus is preaching the word in a house. This is the second time in Mark’s story that Jesus has taught in a house. The house is crowded, so crowded no one could get in through the door. There is a paralyzed man who has four faithful friends who want to bring him to Jesus. They cannot get in, on account of the crowd, but they will not wait, so they climb to the roof and open it up. They literally dig through it. I try to imagine the scene: the pounding on the roof, the thuds and echoes inside, and then the falling mud, stick, straw; the chaos and confusion; the press of bodies against one another as they push against the walls in an attempt to get out of the way. And I think of the noise: the sounds of confusion, the angry shouts and the panicked cries. And then down through the roof, as if from the sky, a human figure descends in their midst. And we are told that Jesus sees their faith. The plural is important. He did not see the faith of the paralytic, but the faith of the four friends.

What did Jesus see? What does this faith look like?

Faith in the Gospel of Mark looks like persistence, impatience, and pushiness, even shamelessness. It involves risk-taking, the defying of conventions, refusing to be denied. It is insistent.

Think of the leper who bounded up to Jesus and said, “If you choose, you can make me well”; or Jairus, the leader of the village assembly, kneeling before Jesus; or the Syro-Phoenician woman who convinced Jesus that immigrant deserve the same treatment as citizens; or the man with the withered arm who was unafraid to display his disability before a crowd. Think of Blind Bartimaeus, willing to be as loud as he needed to be in order to ask Jesus for what he wanted. And on, and on.

This is what Jesus sees. This is what faith looks like. This is what heals.

Over and over, in story after story, Jesus does not so much heal people as he acts as the catalyst for God’s power in people’s lives. And he encourages others to do the same for one another.

That’s right! One of the big points of the Gospel of Mark is that we can, we should, we must help one another realize the power of God in our lives. That is what is means to be fully human. One of the early church theologians, Irenaeus, famously said, “The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.” That is not something we can take for granted. We are to struggle to be human, to be fully alive, as God intends. It is not too much to say that Jesus wants us to achieve or live up to our human potential as Children of God.

Ironically, our Monday Evening Bible Study, which has been studying the Gospel of Mark for ten months now, has discovered that deep within so many of us is a belief that Jesus asks too much of us; of more than we are capable of. We have been trained in this belief, of course, – to expect little of ourselves, of our humanity. “To err is human,” we think, and “What can you expect, we’re only human,” we say, which are both ready excuses, a mindset, a worldview, that asks too little and expects less of human nature.[ii]

But the Apostle Paul says that we must “grow into the fullness of the Children of God” and that even as we do, “we do not yet know what we will become.” We must struggle to be human, to become that for which “all creation groans and waits in eager expectation to be revealed”: humanity fully alive as God intends, taking our proper place within creation. (Romans 8:18ff)

Jesus says we will be able to do all that he did, and more.


Anticipating my upcoming vacation, I recently picked up the final book by New Testament scholar Walter Wink, from whom I have learned so much in classes and workshops. Walter died in 2012 from complication related to dementia, and this final book, called Just Jesus, is a memoir written with the help of many friends during his final year. In the preface, his wife June reflects on the process used by these faithful friends to help Walter summarize a life’s work of relationships, scholarship, and non-violent activism that he calls “my struggle to become human.” They would read to Walter from his writings, or Walter would remind them of stories which they would compose together as Walter was able – he narrating when he could, and when he could not speak he would nod affirmation or rejection as they told the stories, he changing words here and there to get them right. Again and again I have found myself weeping while reading these poignant episodes of failure and growth as Walter tried to become more human.[iii]

Walter Wink had spent the last decade of his life researching the enigmatic phrase, “the son of man” that appears in our scripture reading this morning. “Scarcely any topic in all research has received more attention with less result,” he has written. He published his findings in a book called The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man.

Here are some of the facts with which Professor Wink defines the problem.

“Son of man” (without definite articles) appears one hundred and eight times in the Hebrew Scriptures, ninety-three of them in Ezekiel. Curiously, God refuses to call Ezekiel by his given name, but addresses him on as “son of man.” No one else calls Ezekiel “son of man,” only God. A similar expression appears in the New Testament some eighty-seven times, all but three in the Gospels, and curiously eighty–four times on the lips of Jesus and no one else….

Herein lies the puzzle: Jesus apparently avoided designation as messiah [Christ], son of God, or God, though these titles were given to him after his death by his disciples. But Jesus is repeatedly depicted as using the obscure expression “the son of man” as virtually his only form of self-reference. Yet, his disciples, after his death, almost completely ignore the expression. Paul never once used it, nor any of the writers of the epistles. It appears only a few times in the writings of the Apostolic [authors]. So far as we know, no one worshipped “the son of man” or made that figure the one addressed in prayer….

Yet once the early church began talking about Jesus as “fully God” and “fully human,” the phrase “son of man” was taken to be a humble shorthand or oblique reference for “son of God.” It was often taken as a title and represented with capital letters as in Son of Man. Nothing could be further from Jesus purpose.

So, see if you can follow this:

“Son of” is simply a Semitic idiom meaning ‘pertaining to the following genus or species.’ Thus ‘son of the quiver’ is an arrow (Lam. 3:13), a ‘son of the herd’ is a calf (Gen. 18:7), and a ‘son of the night’ refers to something one night old (Jon. 4:10). Joshua and Zerubbabel are ‘sons of oil,’ that is, anointed ones (Zech. 4:14), and a ‘son of wisdom’ is a wise person (Isa. 19:11). Hence ‘son of man’ simply means ‘man’ or ‘human being.’ [iv]

Translators of Hebrew Scripture have now caught up with this. Thus, in our NRSV pew bibles, Ezekiel 2:1 has God address Ezekiel with the phrase “Hear, O mortal…” where older translations had “Hear, O son of man.” At the same time, New Testament translators continue to treat “son of man” as a title, capital letters and all, as you see in your pew Bibles this morning. But in Ezekiel and Daniel, “the son of man” is not a title or messianic office but refers to an archetype of humanity – he is the one who puts us in touch with our humanity. The Human One, Human Being, or simply Humanity are Professor Wink’s preferred translations. It is an inclusive image, as well. Perhaps my favorite example of this kind of use is in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia in which all of Narnia, captive to the Snow Queen who keeps the world “always winter and never Christmas,” longs for the arrival of the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve to set things right.

Now let’s return to the Gospel of Mark.

Jesus sees the faith of four friends who bring a paralyzed man to Jesus. And what does Jesus say? Get up and walk? No, he says, “You are forgiven.” In particularly, “your debts are forgiven.”

Imagine, “You don’t owe anyone anything…

  • for your physical condition;
  • for your care, the care given to you, the years of caregiving;
  • for your needs, or neediness (if that is the case);
  • and quite literally, your financial debts are forgiven. Your medical bills, back-rent, and even the bill for the repair of the roof, are taken care of.

Can we hear Jesus say, “You don’t owe me anything, either.” How liberating that must have been!

And the scribes freak out. They think, “Who can forgive but God alone?”

Really?? Only God??

Think again about the phrase I used earlier “To err is human…” Do you know how to finish it?

“To err is human… to forgive is divine” (Alexander Pope, 1688-1744) which simply repeats the scribes error of expecting too little of human beings and leaving forgiveness to God.

The point of Jesus’ encounter here is that when we act like human beings, rather than something less than human… when we act as mortals can, as we should, then we

  • forgive one another,
  • extend grace,
  • release one another from burdensome obligations,
  • let go of hurts,
  • heal one another,
  • hold one another,
  • care for one another.

“So that you may know that human beings can do this,” Jesus says to the paralytic, “Get up [Rise up]. Take your mat, and walk.”

What Jesus asks of us, what God needs of us, is for us to be the human beings we were made to be, to struggle to be human in an inhuman world, to let Jesus direct us toward the power of God, available to us, at work within us, already, for the healing our lives and our world.

Let us take a moment to reflect, before God, what this means for each of us, and then let us sing our struggle and seek the aid we need, as we sing hymn 445, “God, How Can We Forgive”… (Ruth Duck, 1994).


[i] Richard Horsley, Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel. (WJK, 2011).

[ii] Part of this is what Desmond Tutu has called “surplus powerlessness,” a learned passivity before the powers that control us. This would have been another direction to develop this sermon. Another part of is the teaching of “cheap grace” of which Dietrich Bonhoeffer was so critical, which would have been another direction to develop this. Instead I follow the apocalyptic humanism found in Daniel 7 and developed by the anti-imperial theologians like St. Paul.

[iii] Walter Wink, Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human, A Memoir. (Image, 2014). Walter writes poignantly about his work to recover an emotional life he had shut down in response to early trauma.

[iv] Walter Wink, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man. (Augsburg, 2001). These paragraphs are reprinted in Just Jesus (see above). Jesus term of self-reference is actually the awkward “the son of the man,” rather than “the son of man,” but that was more information than needed to make the points needed in this sermon.


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