by the Rev. Daniel Ross-Jones, MPA, associate Conference minister
I’m not a physician, so I have no idea if my presumption is correct: I have always presumed it is easier to diagnose an illness than treat it. Of course, there are certain illnesses that elude easy diagnosis, and I acknowledge them – yet taken on the whole, I’ve always presumed that the challenging half of the equation is on the treatment side of the formula.
In the fifth chapter of John, Jesus encounters a group of people manifesting symptoms of illness gathered around the pool at Bethesda in Jerusalem. Jesus asks one of them, “Do you want to get well” (John 5:6, TNIV)? Maybe this question is where I get the idea that diagnosis is easier than treatment.
This is a passage I had intended to reflect on for this week’s column before the horrific massacre in Uvalde, Texas. Before the release of the independent investigation into clergy abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention. I had an entirely different column in my mind; or, at least, I thought I did until I sat down to type here.
It’s easy to diagnose problems. Treatment demands a response. It demands work. It demands energy that, if we’re entirely honest, we don’t always commit. It demands consistency. It requires risking hope that the unknown future is better than the known present – even acknowledging present limitations.
Most of all, it requires humility, and acknowledgement of human frailty and interdependence.
The paralyzed man responds to Jesus, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me” (John 5:7, TNIV). The more fully abled and independent among us may hear excuses in the man’s words. We might even assign the primary responsibility of agency to the man, regardless of his condition – and leverage Jesus’s own inquiry as proof of the valor of such a reading. He wouldn’t have an issue with others barging ahead of him if he self-advocated, maybe threw some elbows around his space. This interpretation places the fault squarely on the shoulders of the paralyzed man, choosing a form of convenience over personal challenge or discomfort.
Some will instead ask questions of the man’s family. Where are they in this story? Why aren’t they helping him? Have his parents died? His siblings? Why aren’t they responsible for helping him as his next-of-kin?
Yet others may also expand the circle further to the wider community. Why is no one coming to the aid of this man? Rather than hearing his words as an excuse, this sort of reading encounters the man’s condition as a failure of the whole collective community. Jesus highlights the man’s agency that yes, indeed, he wishes to be made well – he just needs someone to carry him into the healing waters. He needs someone to risk for his sake, to match the risk he is willing to take on for himself.
Of course, my own theology and understanding of Jesus’s teachings lends me to believe that latter reading is most accurate to Jesus’s intended message. (It’s amplified in the remainder of the pericope, through verse 14, as the community’s authorities immediately reprimand the newly-healed man for carrying his mat on the Sabbath – demonstrating their preference for reinforcing and maintaining order and control versus abundant, transformational, inclusive living.)
We know that we in the United States of America have a unique disease in relationship to guns and the use of violence. We know that we who are in the church (of any “franchise”) have a checkered history in perpetrating violence and abuse.
Do we wish to be made well?
Do we wish to move past diagnosis, to move past identification of the challenges (such as corporate lobbying, money in politics, differentiation of jurisdictions), to move past our own individual solutions, to move past the weight of individualism-masquerading-as-personal-responsibility so wired into ourselves in our culture?
Do we wish to risk everything we’ve known, everything we’ve amassed, everything we hold and recognize and accept as normative, in exchange for an unknown future whose only currency is hope for those who will inherit it?
Do we wish to acknowledge our own complicity, our own limitations, our own hubris, to engage a collective solution that – yes, will still be imperfect – and embraces the needs of the whole over and above the desires of a few for order, predictability, and propriety?
Do we wish to be made well?