Friday, December 12, 2014

The Burden of Sin in Mark and The Pilgrim’s Progress

We have begun praying on Scripture in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises (19th Annotation Retreat, Archdiocese of Boston).

Unfortunately, I think I failed the first test.

Given the parable of Christ healing the paralytic (Mark 2:1–12) and this painting of the parable by an unknown 16th-century artist, I decided in prayer that Christ had played a trick on everybody.

After being challenged by scribes over his claim that he could forgive the sins of the paralyzed man, Jesus asked which was easier, to forgive sins or cure the man’s paralysis?

Then, “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” Jesus told the paralytic to stand up, take his mat, and go home.

The trick is, Jesus healed the man but did not remove his burden of sin! Ha ha! How did I know this “in prayer”? Two reasons:

The man is still carrying a burden in the painting, and Jesus is so far away from him as to be indistinguishable in the crowd in the doorway in the distance. The man is now farther from Christ than he was when paralyzed!

I write all this with an ironic jab at myself, of course, but I really did have these thoughts. I think I had these thoughts because I have been reading and writing about The Pilgrim’s Progress, while posting a similar illustration of the pilgrim, Christian, at the beginning of his journey. And I identify with Christian.

The illustration looks like this. See the similarity?

For me there is something worth contemplating here when all the irony passes. Jesus’s question seems to have an obvious answer: It is easier to forgive sin than to forgive paralysis.

But I would say it’s just the other way around. The Pilgrim’s Progress begins with a man so burdened with sin (literally on his back) that he absolutely must find a solution, a way of taking his load off.

Others suggest shortcuts, like Worldly Wiseman, one of the wonderfully named allegorical characters in the book. WW, who hails from the city of Carnal Policy, tells Christian to head for the city of Morality, where an expert named Legality will remove his burden for him.

Pilgrim falls for this suggestion but turns back when Mt. Sinai—representing Mosaic, Old Testament law—nearly falls on his head. Admittedly, he is walking through a strange landscape!

Of course, John Bunyan is saying that we cannot remove the stain of sin by adhering to law. We need grace. And it is only when Christian passes the wicket gate and reaches Calvary that his burden drops from his back.

Meanwhile, as I was reminded while praying on Mark, the burden of sin remains heavy on the backs of us Christians. It certainly does on mine.

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