When we hear stories about Jesus preached and taught, the telling of the story is usually centered around the historical event with an emphasis on the theological significance of that event. I can think of no major theological issue in teaching on “Jesus’s baptism,” “Jesus’s feeding of the 5,000,” or “Jesus’s crucifixion” as historical happenings, nor can I imagine any major problem in drawing from different Gospel accounts to paint a more accurate picture of “what actually happened.” Might I suggest, however, that we may be losing something when we do isolate these events from their context?
We have four Gospels, not one. While four (or fewer) accounts of the same events help corroborate a story, we were not given four gospels merely because we needed the veracity of each testimony confirmed by several witnesses. Each Gospel brings a nuance to Jesus’s life and mission that is unique. Four Gospels prevent us from flattening Jesus into what we think he should be even though it is popular today to do just that. By isolating the event from text and/or supplementing the account with details from another Gospel we override the nuance author was bringing to the text – almost like we are letting one voice speak over the top of another.
Perhaps we can illustrate this best by talking about how each of the Synoptics (sorry John!), which share a lot of the same language and stories about Jesus, talk about the healing of the paralytic.
Mark: Yahweh’s Kingdom Unstoppable (Mark 2:1-12)
Mark’s version is probably the most well-known. Mark presents Jesus as Yahweh finally coming to restore his people and establish his kingdom on earth. What that looks like is totally different from Jewish expectations at that time. Jesus begins his mission by teaching, calling disciples, casting out demons, and healing the sick. Except for all the healings and exorcisms, nothing “out of the ordinary” happens until he heals a leper by touching him. Jesus risks becoming ritually unclean in order to cleanse the leper, but the leper’s uncleaness doesn’t sully Jesus. Jesus’s cleaness overcomes the leper’s uncleaness and heals him. At that point, Yahweh’s coming kingdom takes on more dimension. Neither demons nor sickness nor perpetual uncleaness are outside the bounds of Jesus’s mission of restoration. The healing of the paralytic comes next. Mark sets the scene by emphasizing how full the house was more than the other Gospels. The fullness of the house serves to show the depth of the five friends’ faith. They believe Jesus and stop at nothing to get their friend to him. Mark’s placement of the story is strategic as well since he uses the story to add another dimension to the type of kingdom Jesus is bringing to earth. Jesus heals the man by forgiving his sins. Jesus’s actions raises an important question: How does this man think he can do what only God can do? To the scribes, Jesus is denying God’s oneness. Jesus, however, affirms his ability to forgive sins by healing the man. One commentator calls this “hard evidence” of Jesus’s ability to forgive. From Mark’s perspective, this story demonstrates that forgiveness is not just a heavenly thing: “The Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sin.” Forgiveness – as has the kingdom – has come to earth.
Matthew: Jesus’s Authority Demonstrated (Matt 9:1-8)
Matthew takes the same story, compresses it, and places it in a series of stories about Jesus’s authority. First, Jesus and his disciples are traveling in a boat when a storm comes. The disciples, afraid for their lives, summon Jesus to ask for help and declare that they are about to die. Jesus rebukes the disciples. Then he rebukes the storm. The storm is pacified, and the disciples are left wondering at the type of man that Jesus is: “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” Answer: the type of man who you should put your faith in. Next, Jesus goes to the country of the Gadarenes where he encounters two demon-possessed men (by the way, Mark and Luke place this story some time after the healing of the paralytic). These demons convince Jesus to send them into a herd of pigs. After Jesus permits their request, the pigs rush out of their pen, fall into the water, and drown. Due to Jesus’s actions, the men are calm and sane – all is right. Not even the most powerful of demons can stop Jesus. The people of the town, however, beg Jesus and his disciples to leave the region. Are these people responding appropriately to Jesus? Finally, we come to our story. As mentioned before, it’s a compressed version of what we see in Mark and Luke. There’s no mention of the crowds or even the house. The friends bring the paralytic to Jesus, Jesus forgives the man’s sins. The scribes question Jesus, Jesus responds to scribes and demonstrates his authority over sin and sickness by healing the man. The people respond with great wonder that God would give such authority to men. By arranging the stories the way he does, Matthew shows that Jesus has supreme authority over everything on earth. What kind of response is appropriate when we face a man with that kind of authority? We must put our faith in him and be disciples.
Luke: The Kingdom and Great Role Reversal (5:17-26)
Luke’s story looks very similar to Mark’s telling with a few exceptions. In the beginning, Luke prepares the reader for the coming conflict between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees: “He was teaching one day, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting (they had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem). The power of the Lord was with him to heal.” Jesus and the religious leaders were about to clash over a healing. We also know that the Lord was with Jesus, that is to say, what is about to happen to the paralytic falls in the purview of Jesus’s mission: to set captives free (4:17-21). Jesus’s interaction with the paralytic demonstrates the orientation of Jesus’s ministry toward the lowly and marginalized, and forgiveness is a vital part of that ministry. While the Pharisees express outrage at Jesus’s actions, Jesus addresses the need in front of him. Jesus restores the man in front of him completely. He silences his opposition not with the power of a sword but the power of a healing. Jesus did not come to make war with the Romans or slaughter his human opposition. He came to restore his people spirit and body.
In all three gospels, the story of the paralytic gives dimension to Jesus’s ministry. In all three, Jesus confirms his authority and, arguably, his divinity. Yet, the three gospels use the story differently in their own presentations of who Jesus is. If we isolate the story or supplement the details from another gospel, we risk distorting that presentation. The story is a part of a tapestry. We can appreciate the design by itself, but let us not try to remove design from the fabric it’s woven into. Instead, let’s take a step back and appreciate how the design contributes to the beauty of the whole piece.