“In the porticoes was one man who had been sick for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been sick for a long time, he said to him: ‘Do you wish to get well?’ The sick man answered him and said, ‘Yes, Lord. But I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred; while I am coming, another steps down before me’ ” [John 5:5–7].

Why did Jesus pass by all the others and come to this man? He did it so that he might show his power and his loving kindness.

A Long Misery

Let us not lightly pass over either the place or the 38 years the man had been in the grip of his infirmity. Let all men listen carefully—all those who have grown old in unending poverty, all who live with the weakness of their infirmity, all who endure the crises of worldly affairs, all who have lived with the surging storms of unexpected troubles. This paralytic lies before us as a haven open to all, as a safe port from human disasters.

No one is so foolish, no one is so miserable and distressed that, if he looks at this man he would not generously and willingly endure whatever troubles may befall himself. If he were sick for twenty years or ten or only five, would not these years have been enough to destroy his strength of soul? Yet this man did not leave the pool but stayed there for 38 years and proved his great patience.

Perhaps you think the length of time he stayed there is a marvelous thing. But if you listen to what he said, then especially will you come to know the virtue and discipline of his whole way of life.

Great Patience, Great Glory

Christ stood there and asked him, “Do you wish to get well?” and who would not have known that he wished to get well? Why, then, did Christ ask him?

Christ knew what the man was going to say, but he still asked him if he wished to be cured. Christ did not ask him because he did not know the answer, but he did it so as to give the paralytic an opportunity to tell of his personal disaster in tragic terms and so to teach us a lesson in patience.

What, then, did the paralytic say? He did not take the question in bad grace, he did not become angry, he did not say in reply, “You see that I am paralyzed, and you know how long I have been sick. Do you still ask me if I wish to get well? Did you come to make fun of my misfortune and to ridicule another’s troubles?”

And you can be sure that sick men are sullen and surly even if they have been confined to bed for only a year. But when your illness has been your constant companion for 38 years, how likely could it be that your virtuous way of life and your self-discipline would not have been spent and used up in so long a span of time?

Nonetheless, the paralytic neither said nor thought any such thing. With great reasonableness, he made his reply and said, “Yes, Lord, but I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred.” See how many troubles gathered together to besiege him—he was sick; he was poor; he had no one to stand by his side.

“While I am coming, another steps down before me”—this disappointment is more pitiful than all the others. By itself, it is enough to bend and move a heart of stone. I can imagine seeing the man, each single year, crawling along and coming to the mouth of the pool. I can imagine him, each single year, hanging at the very brink of having his hope come to a happy fulfillment.

And what is worse, he endured this not for two or three or ten years but for 38 years. He showed every effort but failed to reach the reward. The race was run, but the prize went to another over these many years.

And still more difficult was the fact that he saw others freed from their disease. For you certainly know that we get a keener perception of our own troubles when we see that others have fallen into the same dreadful ills but then are freed from them. This is why a poor man feels his own poverty all the more when he sees another man who is rich. The sick man feels more pain when he sees that many of those who were afflicted have rid themselves of their ailments, while he has no hope of such a happy end.

This is what happened to the paralytic. It is true that he was struggling against sickness, poverty, and loneliness for so long a time. It is true that he saw others freed from their ills while he was always trying but never had the strength to succeed. It is true that he had no expectation for the future of again being rid of his suffering. Nonetheless, he did not leave the pool and go away. Each year he hurried to the waters as fast as his ailment allowed.

As for ourselves, after we pray once to God for some favor or other and fail to get it, we become troubled and fall into the utmost indifference and deepest grief. We withdraw from prayer and put an end to all earnest effort.

Can we praise the paralytic as he deserves? Can we condemn ourselves enough for our negligence? What defense or pardon would we deserve when we slacken our efforts and lose heart so quickly, whereas he stood steadfast and patient for 38 years?

What, then, did Christ do? When the paralytic showed that he deserved to be cured, in all justice Christ came to him before the others and said to him, “Rise, pick up your mattress, and walk!” [verse 8].

Do you see how the 38 years did him no harm because he had endured everything with patience? His soul had become more virtuous and disciplined in that long span of time. It had been tested by his misfortune as in a smelting furnace, and therefore he received his cure with greater glory. For it was not an angel but the master of the angels himself who cured him.

Strong, Wise Love

Why did Christ command him to take up his mattress?

Unless his limbs had been made solid and his joints held fast, he would not have been able to support the weight on his shoulders. In addition to all this, he also showed that, when Christ gave the command, everything happened in a single moment—he was both free from his disease and returned to health.

Even if physicians free their patients from diseases, they cannot bring a sick man back to health in a single moment. They still need another long period of time for the patient to recuperate, so that traces of the disease may, little by little, be driven out and cast forth from the body. But Christ does not cure in this way. In a single moment of time, he both frees from disease and restores to health; there is no interval between the cure and the recovery.

When a maidservant is rebelling but then sees her master coming, she grows humble and returns to her good behavior. So, too, the paralytic’s body had revolted like the maidservant, and this caused the paralysis. But when the body saw its master coming near, it returned to its good behavior and resumed its proper discipline. And the word of Christ accomplished all this.

“Afterward Jesus found him and said to him, ‘See, you are cured. Sin no more, so that nothing worse may happen to you’ ” [verse 14].

Did you see the physician’s wisdom? Did you see his concern? Not only did he free the man from his ailment at the time he was cured, but he also made him safe against disease for the future. And this was a very opportune time to do so.

When the man was lying on his couch, Jesus said nothing like this to him; he did not then remind him of his sins. For the souls of those who are sick are distressed and somewhat morose. So first he drove out the disease, first he restored the man to health. Then, after he proved by his deed his power and his concern for him, he gave his timely exhortation and advice. Why? Because Christ had already shown by the very things he did that he now deserved to be believed.

The Master

Pay careful attention to me here because here is the crux of the whole struggle: “This is why they kept persecuting him, because he did these things on the Sabbath” [verse 18].

Let us see, therefore, how Christ defends himself. For the way he presents his case shows us whether he is a free man or a servant, whether he is one who serves or one who commands.

There was a time when a man who had gathered wood on the Sabbath was stoned to death because he had carried burdens on the Sabbath. Christ was accused of this serious sin because he had violated the Sabbath.

Does he first ask for pardon as would a servant and a man subject to orders? Or does he show himself as a man with power and authority, like a master who presides over the law and who has himself given the commands? How, then, does he make his defense?

He said, “My Father works even until now, and I work” [verse 17]. Did you see his authority?

If he were inferior to and less than the Father, what he said is no defense. Rather, it is a greater charge and a more grievous accusation.

Only a king or the emperor is permitted to wear a purple robe and a crown on his head. Suppose, then, some man from the crowd is seen wearing this adornment and is then dragged into the courtroom. Suppose he says, “I am wearing this adornment because this is what the emperor wears.” This kind of defense does not free him from the charge but even makes him subject to more serious punishment and vengeance.

Therefore, no one who is an inferior and a subject will ever defend himself with such arguments. But if a man is himself an emperor, or one who has the same dignity, he will feel quite confident in saying that he is only doing what the emperor does. Just as their preeminence is one and the same, so too their power would naturally be one and the same.

Therefore, if we see someone offering this argument in his own defense, he must in every way be a person of the same dignity as the one whose power he puts forward in his own defense. Therefore, when Christ used this argument to justify to the Jews what he had done, he gave us an indisputable proof that he is of the same dignity as the Father.

As soon as the sacred word was uttered by his holy tongue, the sickness fled, the word became deed, and the whole illness was completely cured.

From Homily XII in St. John Chrysostom: On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, translated by Paul W. Harkins (Catholic University of America Press, 1982). Used with permission.