Palamas on the Paralytic
Saint Gregory Palamas on the Healing of the Paralytic in Capernaum
On the second Sunday of Great and Holy Lent each year we commemorate our father among the saints Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonika. What do we know about St. Gregory? A lot! But, I’m only going to share a little, some important parts. St. Gregory was born in Constantinople 1296 to aristocratic parents, the eldest of seven children. In the year 1316, after his father died, despite an extensive secular education in philosophy, Gregory (20 years old), his mother, two sisters and two brothers and many of their servants entered into the monastic life. Gregory and his two brothers settled near the monastery of Vatopedi. After three years and the death of their brother Theodosios, Gregory and his surviving brother Macarios joined the monastery of the Great Lavra. Gregory came under the tutelage of different spiritual elders. He was ordained a priest in 1326 (30 years old). Much of his life was devoted to seclusion and silence. In 1335 (39 years old) Gregory was appointed Abbot/Geronta of Esphigmenou Monastery. Shortly after this is when the debates began with the Monk Barlaam of Calabria. We’re not going to focus on the subject of the debates today but during part of the turmoil Gregory was imprisoned for four years (1342-46). Gregory was ordained Archbishop of Thessalonika in 1347 (51 years old) by Patriarch Isidoros. During a voyage to Constantinople, Gregory was captured by Turks who imprisoned him for one year (1354-55) but this afforded him the opportunity to dialogue with Muslim theologians and the son of the Emir (Orkhan). After a long illness, Gregory reposed in 1359 (63 years old) and was canonized a saint by the Church in 1368. To sum up, Gregory was a monastic for 31 years and a bishop for twelve years and a prisoner for five years.
What better way to commemorate St. Gregory Palamas today than to review his commentary on today’s Gospel reading (Mark 2:1-12) about Jesus’ healing of the paralytic in Capernaum, that city on the northern shore of the Galilee Sea which we will talk about at our Wednesday Lenten lecture on March 14th. Jesus was in the house (v.1), which could have belonged to Peter’s mother-in-law. First, St. Gregory notes that Jesus ‘preached the word’ to the ‘many’ who ‘gathered’ there. Quoting other scripture verses, Gregory emphasized that by Jesus’ own words, He Himeself demonstrated that preaching was His principle work. For example, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt.4:17). “I have come to call sinners to repentance (Mt.9:13). The Apostle Paul also emphasized preaching, saying, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing comes by the word of God” (Rom.10:17). America just lost its greatest preacher last week. The Reverend Billy Graham passed away at 99 years old. Arguably, one of the most revered Christians in the history of the United States, Pastor Graham’s sole ministerial focus was preaching the word of God. What emphasis do we Orthodox Christians put on preaching? If it is truly important to us, then we make sure that we and our children are present for the preaching of Jesus in the Gospel of the liturgy, the preaching of the Apostle Paul in the Epistle and the preaching of our priest in the sermon/homily that follows. It’s that simple.
Secondly, St. Gregory notes that it is not the faith of the paralytic that effects his healing but the faith of others, especially the four men who, not being able to reach Jesus because of the great crowd, break through the roof and lower the paralytic into the house (vv.3-4). This same dynamic occurs with Canaanite woman for her sick daughter (Mt.15:22-28; Mk.7:24-30), and Jairus for his dying daughter (Mk.5:21-43; Lk.8:40-56; Mt.9:18-26). How many of us believe in the power of faith, and the power of prayer to move our Master and Lord to take pity on His suffering servants? How many of us are bringing people to God’s house, including our own family, breaking down every barrier to get here? Not all may have physical infirmities but all of us suffer from spiritual illnesses. Who is going to bring us if we cannot bring ourselves? Who is going to pray for us when we are too weak or depressed to pray ourselves? Jesus Himself asked, “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8).
Thirdly, St. Gregory speaks to the nature and purpose of illness. He notes that the Pharisees “reasoned in their hearts” (v.6) doubting the authority of Jesus to forgive the sins of the paralytic. In pointing out the Pharisees’ problem, Gregory quotes Jesus speaking elsewhere saying, “How can you believe, which receive honor of another, and seek not the honor that comes from God only” (John 5:44). In other words, if we are always focused on the esteem of other people and not the esteem of God, then our faith is in man and not in God. Thus, Gregory says, “there are times when illness is better for sinners than good health, because it helps them towards salvation and blunts their inborn evil impulses.” In other words, there is nothing better to shake up faith in worldliness than debilitating illnesses.
Fourthly, St. Gregory uses allegory, a common device of biblical interpretation among the Church Fathers to reveal deeper meaning in the Gospel passage. He says that if we are addicted to sensual pleasures, we are paralyzed in soul, and are lying sick the bed of voluptuousness (indulgent and luxurious) with its deceptive bodily ease. However, if we have been won over by the preaching of the Gospel, we confess our sins and triumph over the paralysis. The four men represent the four ways we are taken up and brought to the Lord: 1) self-condemnation, confession of sins, renunciation of evil, and prayer to God. However, we cannot be brought near to the Lord without first removing the roof tiles of our reasoning soul (which is characterized by reliance on human logic versus faith in God). The rest of the building materials under the tiles represents our connection to the passions and earthly matters. To be let down through the roof means to be humbled before the Lord. Then, we can draw near to Him and ask for, and receive healing. The bed of the paralytic represents the body that pursues fleshly desires and clings to sinful actions.
After being healed, our mind has our body under control to bring about fruits and works of repentance. That’s how yesterday’s publican becomes today’s evangelist (Matthew), how yesterday’s persecutor becomes today’s apostle (Paul), and yesterday’s thief (on the cross) becomes today’s theologian.
As we close, listen to what St. Gregory said to the people in his church on the day he preached this sermon about the paralytic. “When I am standing with you before God in the holy church and I turn round and see people offering up hymns and prayers to God with understanding and contrition, or someone standing silently listening in deep thought, then this sight alone immediately inspires me, my soul is filled with delight and I glorify Christ, our Father in heaven. For without Him nobody can do anything good (cf John 15:5), and all men’s attainments are due to Him. But what can I say to those people who neither stand in silence, nor join in the singing, but instead meet one another and mix our reasonable worship of God with worldly chatter? They do not listen themselves to the divinely inspired words, and prevent others who want to listen from doing so. “How long halt ye between two opinions?” as Elijah the Tishbite would say (1 Kings. 18:21). You want simultaneously to come together for prayer and for worldly, ill-timed words. Of course, you succeed in neither purpose, because you destroy the one with the other, or rather, they destroy each other. How long before you stop talking idly in this place? You make this house of prayer into a place of business or impassioned speech (cf Matt. 21:13, Mark 11:17, Luke 19:46).”
My brothers and sisters, let us use this time of Great and Holy Lent to more earnestly read the Scriptures to hear the word of God. With renewed faith let us draw near to Him in the Lenten worship services bringing others with us. Let us give thanks for our illnesses as they turn us back to God. Let us humble ourselves before the Lord through fasting and confession of our sins. Thus, through Lenten askesis, as St. Gregory said, we may advance “from glory to glory” (2Cor.3:18), progressing day by day towards excellence. Amen!