The occasion of today’s Gospel story was a festival of the Jews in Jerusalem to which Jesus went up, probably Pentecost, the spring harvest festival. The place where the event in today’s Gospel took place was a pool called either Bethseda, which means House of Mercy, or Beth-zatha, which means House of Olives. Around it were five porticoes where many invalids lay in hope of being cured.
Several years ago when I visited Jerusalem I was taken to see this pool near the site of St. Anne’s Church. Because of the way in which the city grew up around and above that place the actual pool is perhaps 40 or 50 feet beneath ground level. We could see the pool far below us, and what was left of some of the porticoes, with some of the mosaic designs on them, and with pillars that had held up some sort of sheltering roof over the places where those waiting to be healed would be lying in wait of a chance to enter the pool when the waters were periodically troubled by underground surges.
The story told in today’s Gospel is found only in the Gospel of John, but there are similar stories of healings in the other Gospels, but with differing details. In today’s Gospel the sick man was not carried to Jesus by friends, and he did not ask Jesus for healing. Jesus asked him if he wanted to be made well. We can imagine Jesus going to that place and seeing all of those people wanting to be healed. He must have thought within himself what he should do. We do not know for what reason Jesus spoke to that particular man. He must have perceived that the man had hope, but he lacked determination. We might say that he was a loser. Jesus was told that he had been there for 38 years without getting into the healing waters.
When Jesus asked him if he wanted to be made well the man answered that because he had no one to help him into the water when the pool was stirred up someone else always stepped down into the water ahead of him and he lost his chance. Jesus saw his lack of determination and having compassion on him told him to stand up, take up his mat, and walk. (v.8) At once he was made well and took up his mat and began to walk.
At this point the Gospel tells us that day was a Sabbath. Jewish law prohibited any activity that could be called labor to be done on the Sabbath. In many cases the point was stretched. For many of us Christians that interpretation seems to go far beyond the original intention of the Sabbath. Jesus told people that in another context. The Sabbath was made for human beings, not us humans for the Sabbath. (Mk 2:27)
Unlike some of the other healings that took place on the Sabbath it was the person who had been cured that was criticized for breaking the Sabbath. When people saw the man who had been healed carrying his mat they warned him that it was not lawful for him to be carrying his mat. They should have rejoiced with him because he had been healed. A sleeping mat being carried by a person who has been healed of a long illness should not be counted as a burden!
Later the crowd recognized Jesus as the one who had performed the cure and began to persecute him. In another case Jesus took occasion to confront the crowd, saying, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath? to save life or to kill?” (Mk 3:4) In this case Jesus answered the crowd, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” In this way Jesus showed that the cure had been done as God’s work. (Jn 5:17)
We can learn from this Gospel reading both the reality of spiritual healing as Jesus did it, acting in the spirit given him by God his Father, and the importance of putting the interpretation of rules and regulations, such as the Sabbath rules of the O.T. into a true perspective. The spirit of rules such as those is far more important than the letter of the law.
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