“After a few days, Jesus went back to Capernaum, and people heard that he was at home. So many gathered that there was no longer space, not even near the door. Jesus was speaking the word to them. Some people arrived, and four of them were bringing to him a man who was paralyzed. They couldn’t carry him through the crowd, so they tore off part of the roof above where Jesus was. When they had made an opening, they lowered the mat on which the paralyzed man was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Child, your sins are forgiven!’ ”
When I first arrived as a student in Princeton Seminary, one of the first buildings I visited was Miller Chapel, the school’s communal worship space used for daily services and seminary events. Fronted by six beautiful Doric columns, the chapel is a jewel of early nineteenth century Greek Revival architecture. Generations of students and teachers have prayed and worshipped together within its walls, and despite being surrounded by colonial-era monuments and battlefields, few buildings in the Princeton area truly exude the same weight of history. Standing there, I was struck by its sacredness and beauty—it is a holy, beautiful space, worthy of admiration and preservation. Then I imagined it being torn to the ground.
Horrific to imagine, isn’t it? Yet we see something not too different happening in the second chapter of the Gospel of Mark. Of all the Bible’s healing miracles, this story of Jesus healing the paralytic is one of the most cherished in part because it’s one of the most dramatic. It reads almost like a proto-heist movie: four friends come together, sneak on top of the building where Jesus is preaching, break inside, and lower their paralyzed friend down to Jesus not unlike Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible. It’s also dramatic because this was one of the only times in Mark where Jesus publicly reveals himself as the Son of God. For most of Mark, Jesus tells those he heals to tell no one of his power, but here he heals the paralytic and declares his sins forgiven in front of a massive crowd. Dramatic, indeed.
But there’s a detail in this story that’s lost on modern audiences: the paralytic’s four friends essentially destroyed the house Jesus was in. First century Palestinian roofs were two feet thick and contained layers of timber, tree branches, and dirt. This is what the paralytic’s four friends dug through—and the original Greek text confirms that they didn’t remove the roof, they didn’t lift the roof, they dug through the roof. By the end, the house’s insides would’ve been covered with debris. Additionally, first century Christians would’ve drawn parallels between this house hosting a rabbi and the secret house churches they were forced to hide in while under Roman occupation. This house was a church. And for whatever reason, these men were denied entry. Jesus had established a reputation in Galilee by then as a healer, and his audience knew he could heal the paralytic—they knew that by letting him through he could get his life back. But shockingly, they didn’t. For whatever reason, these five men didn’t belong in that congregation. They were kept outside, away from the Messiah, away from the healing grace of God. And what was Jesus’ reaction to these outsiders fighting back and destroying his “church?” He saw their faith, and he found it good.
If there’s something in this text that we as Christians should take away that we traditionally haven’t, it’s that God blesses those who disrupt the church with their faith. God blesses outsiders who demand inclusion with God’s people and scream “I am here!” And who are these people? Who has the church traditionally closed the door on? Immigrants and refugees? The disfigured and the homeless? Yes, all these and more. Maybe it would be better if we smashed every chapel and church, every pulpit and sanctuary that denies the unwanted, that rebukes the sinner, that ignores the helpless. As Mark 2 reveals, it’s only when such churches—such roofs—are destroyed that the true Gospel of Christ can be revealed. Only then will God see us—all of us—and say “Your sins are forgiven—now take your mat and walk.”
The above meditation was written by Dr. Doug Hood’s son, Nathanael Hood, a second year student at Princeton Theological Seminary.