On The Subject Of The Paralyzed Man by St. Gregory Palamas
For many reasons the Gospels can be seen as resembling a honeycomb. According to the Song of Songs, the “taste” of our souls’ spiritual Bridegroom, Who is fairer in beauty than the sons of men (cf. Ps. 45:2), is “sweet” and “altogether desirable” (S. of S. 5:16; cf. 2:3). To the soul betrothed to Him, on the other hand, the Songwriter says through the immortal Spirit of wisdom, “Thy lips, 0 my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue” (S. of S. 4:11). Clearly all the Evangelists are like this: their words convey a story which can be compared to the wax of the honeycomb, and their deeper moral meaning, contained within or openly set forth by them, can be likened to honey and milk, since it is appropriate not just to the perfect, but also to the imperfect as spiritual milk (1 Pet. 2:2). The Song refers to the lips of the spiritual bride shedding drops, rather than pouring forth abundantly, when she regards the boundless depth of the Bridegroom’s wisdom and power, and all they have accomplished, because, “The things which Jesus did, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written”, as the greatest theologian among the Evangelists tells us (cf. John 21:25).
For us, however, even these drops are fathomless ocean depths. We have already expounded to your charity the miracle of the paralyzed man when it was read in church from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 2:1-12), and nourished your souls with the grace it contains. But now that we hear the miracle recounted by Matthew (Matt. 9: 1-8), we shall examine it and find once more a great abundance of spiritual food, or rather, we shall discover a little more of the hidden treasure. This small portion will be enough and more than enough for everyone, and, like those loaves with which the Lord fed the multitudes in the wilderness, will increase as it is shared (Matt. 14:19-20). On that earlier occasion, I set before you a meal of honey in the comb, relating the basic story along with intimations of its more subtle, ethical content. Today, by contrast, I shall squeeze out as much honey as time allows, and serve it to all of you gathered here for the spiritual feast.
“At that time, Jesus entered into a ship, and passed over, and came into his own city. And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed” (Matt. 9: 1-2). At this point in our earlier homily we explained that the paralyzed man was not the same one who, according to John, was healed in Jerusalem (John 5:1-15), that Jesus’ own city was Capernaum, and why this is the only town called His own. We also gave you, our spiritual guests, a taste of the hidden honey, and made the story into an allegorical lesson in virtue by pointing out that the city of Jesus which He entered was this world, for, as the Evangelist says, “He came unto his own” (John 1: 11). We added that the paralyzed man is any soul that thinks of turning back to the Lord and is brought to Him by these four things: self-condemnation, confession of sins, the promise to renounce evil, and prayer to God.
In the same vein, when we hear Matthew’s words, “Jesus entered into a ship, and passed over and came into his own city” (Matt. 9: 1), we can, even though the outward sense is different, interpret the account to mean that the Savior of all assumed our nature, crossed the sea of human life, and came into His own city, that throne and dwelling-place which lies above the heavens, far above all principality, and power, and every name and honor that is known, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come (cf. Eph. 1:20-21). That is His true place, where none but He can enter. The Psalmist indicates this by saying, “The heaven of heavens are the Lord’s” (Ps. 115:16 Lxx), for there really is a heavenly place which is God’s own home. When the Lord reached His dwelling-place He did not lay aside our human nature. That is why the Evangelist, after telling us that Jesus went into a ship and crossed over, does not go on to say that He disembarked from the boat before entering the city, but simply states that He went into the boat, crossed over and came to His own city, entered heaven, in that same boat, meaning in a body like ours.
He came to the heavenly city, entered the true Holy of Holies, and sat on the right hand of the Father in our human clay, “having obtained eternal redemption for us”, to quote St. Paul (Heb. 9: 12). Then the Apostles chose from the Gentiles those who would accept the preaching of the Truth, who were afraid and humbled by what they understood of the message they heard, but were still lying prostrate on the bed of self indulgence, feeble and paralyzed, not yet having received the healing of their soul’s diseases, that is to say, the forgiveness of their sins, and so incapable of using their body to do anything good. Separating these people from the others, who would not receive the preaching of repentance and godliness, the Apostles, especially those four who were to write the Gospels, picked them up and brought them to Christ.
When Jesus, it says, saw the faith of the Apostles who brought them – for they are our teachers and mediators before God – for the sake of this perfect faith of theirs He graciously bestowed the adoption of sons on those who were imperfect, saying to each one carried to Him, “Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee” (Matt. 9:2). “Set aside”, He says, “your anxiety over your sins, for they are forgiven. Forget your horror at the sufferings, which threaten you, for you will inherit the promises, seeing you have become â€œMy child and heir.” In practice this happens through Holy Baptism, when we are born again through the Spirit of adoption (Rom. 8:15), receiving forgiveness of our former sins, and becoming heirs of God according to the promise (Gal. 3:29), and joint-heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17).
The scribes and Pharisees, Greeks and Jews, are doubtful about the power and grace of Holy Baptism in which we believe, and ask, “Who can forgive sins?” (Mark 2:7). But we whose souls and bodies used to be paralyzed through sensual pleasures and passions, and incapable of doing anything good, hear the Lord saying to each of us, as to that paralyzed man, “Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thy house” (Matt. 9:6). Strengthened by the grace and power of Holy Baptism within us, we become vigorous and active in virtue, and bring into subjection our mental and physical capabilities and those material things which ought to be subservient to them, but which formerly overpowered us. We then go wherever pleases God and ourselves and, as far as we can, move to our real home, the eternal heavenly mansions. Those who see us ordering our lives in this godly way, marvel and glorify God, Who has given such power and authority to those who believe in Him (cf. Matt. 9:8), that they have their citizenship in heaven while still living on earth. But when we sin after being baptized, although the grace and power of Baptism remain because of the Giver’s love for mankind, the soul’s health and purity depart.
That is why we who are sinners need to be sorrowful and downcast again over our former sins, and to prostrate ourselves anew in repentance, that we may hear once more in a mysterious fashion those words to the paralyzed man, “Son, be of good cheer”, receive forgiveness and have joy in exchange for our grief. For this kind of sorrow is that spiritual honey which we suck from the barren rock, according to the Scriptural allusion, “They sucked honey out of the rock” (Deut. 32: 13 LXX). As Paul says, “That Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4). Do not be surprised that I refer to sorrow as honey. This is what Paul meant when he said, “Godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of (2 Cor. 7: 10). When someone with an injured tongue is offered honey, it seems to sting, but when his wounds are healed he realizes that honey is sweet. Similarly, when the fear of God touches perceptive souls through the preaching of the Gospel, it brings sorrow, as they are still covered in sin’s wounds. But once they have rid themselves of these through repentance, they receive the Gospel’s joy instead. As the Savior says, “Your sorrow shall be turned into joy” (John 16:20). Which sorrow? The sorrow the Lord’s disciples felt at being deprived of their Master and Teacher; the suffering Peter experienced when he denied Christ; the grief of every godly person who repents of his transgressions and his slothful lack of virtue. On falling into sins we should accuse only ourselves and no one else. When Adam broke the commandment, putting the blame on Eve did not help him, nor was it any use for her to accuse the serpent (Gen. 3:12-13). God put us in charge of ourselves, and our souls have been granted absolute authority over the passions, so nothing can prevail over us and force us.
This, then, is godly sorrow that brings salvation: to blame only ourselves, nobody else, for what we do wrong, to grieve over ourselves, and to be reconciled with God through confession of our sins and painful remorse over them. It was Lamech in ancient times who inaugurated self-condemnation and contrition. He openly confessed his sin, passed judgment on himself and condemned himself as worse than Cain – “Cain shall be avenged seven times, Lamech seventy times seven” (Gen. 4:24). Mourning over his guilt, he escaped God’s condemnation through his own agonizing remorse. As the Prophet was to say later, “Declare thou thy sins first, that thou mayest be justified” (Isa. 43:26 Lxx). And the Apostle tells us, “If we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged” (1 Cor. 11:31).
Lamech is the first person recorded as having escaped judgment from above through repentance and sorrow for his sins, then later the Ninevites, whole cities and vast numbers of people, did the same. They had not only sinned, but had received God’s sentence of condemnation, yet they had confidence that they could overturn it through repentance and painful sorrow for their sins. When Jonah proclaimed God’s decision, “Yet three days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4 Lxx), they listened and believed. They did not, however, throw themselves down into the evil pit of despair, nor did they harden their hearts. Instead, they said among themselves, “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?” (Jonah 3:9). And each one of them turned aside from his evil course and the injustice he had committed. They proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least. Even their king sat with them repenting in sackcloth and ashes, and the babies did not suckle, since mothers apparently forgot their unweaned children in their deep mourning. As the Psalmist says, “I forget to eat my bread by reason of my groaning” (Ps. 102:4-5). The animals did not graze, for it seems that herdsmen and shepherds left them shut in their folds and stalls, constrained by their profound remorse. By all joining together in the mourning that brings salvation, they changed God’s decision against them, put an end to His wrath, and transformed it into favor.
As we spend almost all our lives in sin, we too, brethren, need to choose this saving sorrow and a life of penitence. Otherwise, as the Lord says, the men of Nineveh shall condemn us at the Resurrection, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah (cf. Matt. 12:41), whereas we did not repent at the preaching of Christ, the God of Jonah. Moreover, Jonah did not preach repentance but, as we have said, a sentence of condemnation, loss of life, catastrophe, death and utter destruction. Christ, by contrast, came that we might have life and have it more abundantly (cf. John 10:10), together with adoption as God’s sons and the heavenly kingdom. When Jonah proclaimed destruction he neither advised repentance nor promised the kingdom of heaven, whereas Christ preached repentance, promised the kingdom, and also foretold the inevitable destruction of everything. As in the days of Noah, He said, they were well fed and comfortable, then suddenly the flood came and took them all away, so shall the end of this world be (cf. Matt. 24:38-39; Luke 17:27). For the form of this world is passing away (1 Cor. 7:31).
In those days Jonah warned the Ninevites only of the destruction of the visible things of this world, but not of the terrifying tribunal, the unbearable Judgment following the catastrophe, the unquenchable fire, the unsleeping worms, the outer darkness, the gnashing of teeth, and inconsolable grief.
The Lord, on the other hand, forewarned of all these things to come after the end of the world, and also revealed that they were in store for those who live pain-free lives here. They would not, however, happen after the space of three days, as Jonah preached, but long afterwards, because of the Master’s forbearance. God’s long-suffering leads you to repentance, but be careful, lest according to the hardness, insensitivity, lack of contrition, and impenitence of your heart, you treasure up for yourself wrath against the Day of the righteous Judgment and revelation of God. He will render to every man according to his deeds; for those who patiently and with a contrite heart seek the remission of sins through works of repentance, there will be comfort and joy, eternal life, and an indescribable kingdom; but for those who continue ruthlessly in their sins without repenting, there will be suffering, anguish, and unbearable, unending punishment (cf. Rom. 2:4-9).
After the Ninevites, David appeared as a living monument to godly sorrow, telling of the way of salvation and painful contrition according to God’s will. He put down in writing the sin he committed, the grief and repentance he showed to God, and the compassion God granted him. “I said, I will confess my transgression unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin” (Ps. 32:5), he wrote, using “iniquity” to mean the root of evil, the passion resident in his soul, and transgression” to refer to the sinful deed he had committed which he proclaimed to all, repented of and grieved for, and then received not just forgiveness, but inner healing.
Let us hear him describing how he mourned continually: “For all the day long have I been plagued and chastened every morning” (Ps. 73:14). All day “as one that mourneth with a sad countenance, thus I humbled myself’ (cf. Ps. 35:14 Lxx). “Every night I will wash my bed, with tears will I water my couch” (Ps. 6:6). “I am like an owl upon the house top. I have eaten ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping” (Ps. 102:7,9). “My knees are weak through fasting; and my flesh is changed by reason of the want of oil” (Ps. 109:24 Lxx). “I was brought low and the Lord helped me” (cf. Ps. 116:6). He cries out to the Lord, “O Lord, rebuke me not in thine anger, neither chasten me in thy wrath. Have mercy upon me, O Lord” (Ps. 6:1-2), “For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me” (Ps. 51:3). “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and enter not into judgment with thy servant” (Ps. 143:1,2).
“O come”, brethren, “let us”, too, “worship and fall down and weep”, as David himself urges us, “before the Lord that made us” (Ps. 95:6 Lxx), Who has called us to repentance and to this saving sorrow, mourning and contrition. Anyone devoid of this sadness has not obeyed the Lord Who calls us. He is not numbered among God’s saints, and will not obtain the blessedness in the Gospel, nor the promised divine consolation. “Blessed are they that mourn”, it says, “for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).
What if someone says he is without sin and does not need to mourn? This is difficult, highly unlikely, and all but impossible. But even if we do accept that someone has his passions under control, the Scriptures show us another basic reason for this sorrow that saves us. The disciples grieved when they lost Christ, their good Teacher and Savior, and we too are deprived of Him now, and not just of Him, but of the joy of paradise. We have fallen away from its delights, and exchanged somewhere free of passions for this painful place full of them. We have forfeited direct conversation with God, the company of his angels, and eternal life. Who, aware of this deprivation, would not mourn? And anyone oblivious of it does not belong among the faithful. So we, brethren, who have found out about our loss through divinely inspired teaching, should mourn over ourselves and wash away the stains of sin through godly grief, that we may discover God’s compassion, return to paradise, and be the blessed possessors of eternal life and consolation.
May we all attain to this by the grace and love for mankind of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom belong all glory, might, honor and worship, together with His Father Who is without beginning and the all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.