The verse referred to is one of many in which Jesus heals somebody, in this case, a man who has been ill and unable to walk for thirty-eight years. Jesus uses different methods to heal people – in this case, He simply says, “Stand up, take your mat and walk”, and then He walks away, disappearing into the crowd.
Later, in the temple, the two meet again and Jesus says, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” I wanna focus on this for a moment, because it could very easily be misinterpreted. One could take this as Jesus saying that physical illness or disability is punishment for sin, that God is watching and waiting to smite people with cancer or scurvy the moment they screw up. One might get the impression that one’s salvation depended on one’s works, rather than on the unending and undeserved grace of God.
I work with homeless people. Some homeless folx are in that predicament because of some unfortunate circumstance. They got injured, couldn’t work, got evicted for not paying rent, for example. Those folx will be homeless briefly, until they can get back on their feet. The shelter where I work has one or two of those, but mostly we serve the chronic homeless. Most of our guests have mental illness and/or substance abuse issues. They might pick up a few hours of labor occasionally, but they’re not looking for work. They are content to drink or smoke K2 everyday, then stumble back to the shelter to collapse on a mat. They ain’t trying.
I believe that every single human being is a child of God. I don’t care if they “deserve” help or not. Actually, I completely reject the idea that anything in the US economic system is based on merit. Jeff Bezos does not “deserve” hundreds of billions of dollars. That guy sleeping on a mat over there does not “deserve” to be mentally ill, homeless and dying of untreated lung cancer. The whole notion is bullshit. I come to work because I believe it is right for these undeserving people to have a place to sleep inside, without fear. (It is also true that I get paid to be here.)
In the morning, when everybody gets up, one guy will grab a cup of coffee and check out around 5:45 am. He’s always one of the first to leave – others will dither around until I start yelling, “7’o’clock! Time to go!” The reason that guy leaves around 5:45 is that 7-Eleven starts selling beer at 6:00 am and he wants to be first in line. By 6:00, he’s not had a drink in almost twelve hours, which is a long time for an alcoholic. I remember that. Sometimes, when he’s leaving, I’ll say, “Have a good day. Don’t get in trouble.” Another staff member sometimes says, “Make good choices today.” We say these things – kinda inside jokes, really – knowing full well the guy is gonna drink all day and whether he gets in trouble or not will depend on whether or not he pulls out his dick to piss on a sidewalk or falls down in the street or whatever random thing might happen to a street drunk. That doesn’t mean we aren’t sincere. I do hope he stays out of trouble. My coworker does wish he would make better choices – he could get sober if he wanted. And the fact that he comes stumbling into the shelter everyday, drunk as shit, doesn’t diminish our concern for him, doesn’t make us like him any less.
I would suggest that Jesus might have been saying, “Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you” in the same way that I say, “Don’t get in trouble today.” He knows that the man who took up his mat is going to sin. Sure, the guy might refrain from the most egregious sins, just as I no longer wander around downtown drunk like I once did, but he will sin, just as I will sin. And that’s fine. Whether he sins or pisses on the sidewalk, the shelter – the boundless grace of God – will be there at the end of the day.