Read the Gospel text here: Matthew 2:1-12
Digging Through the Dirt
By our 21st century standards, homes in the 1st century were much smaller, much more sparse, and the space was used very differently. Rocks and mud were plentiful in that place so houses were built primarily with mud brick and rocks. Most but not all 1st century homes had a courtyard of some sort, and often animals were kept in the house as well. But perhaps the part of the house that was most different was the roof. Because of our relatively wet weather we have tended to build houses with gabled roofs. The rain and, especially, the snow can more easily slide off of a gabled roof, and it helps keep the inside much dryer. Consequently it is difficult, if not downright dangerous, to climb up on a gabled roof, so this space is not utilized for living, for the most part. Not so in 1st century Palestine. First of all, in the very dry climate, with no snow to speak of, there is no need for a gabled roof. The roofs were flat. So they could be used for a variety of things, and they were. Supported by crude wooden beams and covered with palm leaves and mud, these roofs would be strong enough to support various activities, such as cooking and sleeping. And in some places (notably places like in Bethlehem) grain was even grown on the roof.
Now in our Gospel text for today we find Jesus at home in Capernaum. Now earlier in chapter one, we learn that Peter and Andrew have a home in Capernaum (vs. 29) and it appears that Jesus has made this home his base of operation at least here in the first couple chapters. Now Peter and Andrew were fishermen, which could be a rather lucrative trade at times, so this house was undoubtedly a moderately large house, though probably still pretty small by our 21st century standards. Jesus was inside this house when people who were in need of healing began to converge upon it. It seems as though this was one of those houses that either did not have a courtyard, or may have had a small courtyard, but it seems that Jesus was inside the living space itself. For when 4 young men arrive with their paralyzed friend they cannot get close to Jesus, in fact, they can’t even get inside the house. What to do? There is healing available for their friend, but the people and the physical presence of the house itself create a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.
We encounter obstacles in life all the time. Sometimes these obstacles are bumps in the road; sometimes they can be detours; sometimes they can completely stop us in our tracks. There are even times that we do not recognize the obstacles for what they are – that which keep us apart from others; that interfere with our relationships with loved ones, with others and with God; that which separates us from God. This appears to be the case in Corinth. The church in Corinth is out of control. They have set inappropriate rules for being a part of the community, they have found ways to maintain the social divisions of their society, they are clamoring for position and prestige within the community, they are looking for human adulation. In short, they have lost sight of the cross, of the call to be a servant and to be open to all in Christ’s name. This, St. Paul points out, is an obstacle that is separating them from God. Paul suggests to them that as they seek for praise and adulation, for prestige and position, as they turn their back on those in need or pull apart from others who are different and of a different background, position or race than they are – this then has become an almost insurmountable obstacle that is separating them from God. What to do?
The 4 friends in the Gospel first recognize the obstacle. They see what they are up against and then they work together to figure out a way to overcome it. The goal is to get to Jesus. So, they climb up to the roof and begin to dig through the dirt and the hardened mud and the palm leaves. They do the hard work of digging through the roof in order to get to Jesus. It is the only way. They clear out a passage that they then can use to lower their paralyzed friend down into the house where Jesus will see him and reach out to him and heal him. And they do this hard work and they get from Jesus more than they expected. For Jesus does something unexpected when he addresses this paralyzed man. He doesn’t just heal his body. Rather, he starts by healing him on the inside: “Your sins are forgiven!” Forgiveness is where it starts.
There is another group in this story. A group of scribes and Pharisees who sit and watch and object. "Just who does this guy think he is, forgiving sins?!" This group is struggling with a serious obstacle as well. The obstacle which is separating this group from others and from God is their own arrogance, their own certainty of their rightness, their holiness, their purity. This has become an obstacle which is keeping them away from God. This is an obstacle many in our society struggle with as well: the arrogant certainty of their rightness, their own personal holiness and purity. It is in fact an obstacle which separates them from others and puts a large moat between them and God.
What kinds of hard work do we need to do in order to get to Jesus? In what ways are we paralyzed in our lives, in what ways are we confronted by seemingly insurmountable obstacles that divide us from our loved ones, from others and from God? This is the question posed by this text. Before we can fully respond to God’s call and freely follow Jesus, before we can be free in our relationships with others we need forgiveness and healing. Gifts that God, through Jesus is prepared and waiting to provide for us. But first, perhaps, we have some dirt to dig through!