They made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralysed man, "Son, your sins are forgiven." (Mark 2:4-5)
Back in 1998 the satirical American newspaper The Onion ran a savage spoof article entitled: "God Answers Prayers Of Paralyzed Little Boy."The sub-heading, immediately below those words, was the simple but brutal: "'No', says God." Ouch!
The rest of the feature was, as you might expect, heavily unsubtle in its ironic dismissal of God, Christians and those who pray for healing.
And we might be tempted to think: they have a point, don't they? If we're honest, we sometimes find ourselves asking: "Come on, Lord – I am praying for this sick person here. Isn't it obvious what you should do?"
Except that when Jesus is confronted by the "obvious" thing he should immediately do in Mark 2, that's exactly how he doesn't react.
Here's a paralysed man, unable to move himself, and so carried to Jesus by four of his friends. There's such a large crowd that they can't get near the front door, so somehow they get him up on to the roof and dig through it.
We can only imagine what was going through the minds of those inside the house as the sound of scratching and scrabbling was succeeded by bits of ceiling falling and then a substantial hole appearing. Moreover, this wasn't any old building: Mark tells us in verse 1 that Jesus was "at home". The implication is that this was a house which actually belonged to Jesus, or at the very least, a family member. It's a detail often overlooked. So one "obvious" reaction for Jesus would have been for him to rebuke those who had just vandalised the family home.
But the even more obvious thing for him to do would have been to heal the paralysed man straight away. And he doesn't. Instead, he says simply: "Son, your sins are forgiven." It's a remarkable demonstration of Jesus' authority – and, as those there immediately recognise, an authority which comes with an implicit claim to be divine. "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" they mutter. Indeed – precisely.
But it's also a remarkable reminder that what God sees as our greatest need may be very different from what we imagine. As one writer observes: "Jesus' priority as he exercises his authority is to forgive sins, not heal bodies... Every healed body would die again, while those whose sins are forgiven receive the gift of eternal life."
Indeed the healing – when it comes – is given by Jesus, in his own words, "so that we may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins" (v10). In other words, it's there to validate the truth, priority and importance of his initial words to the man.
We would all like everyone we know who is sick to be healed immediately. Not unreasonably, we would like it ourselves in such circumstances – and there's no doubt it is right to ask for it in prayer. But often, it seems, the Lord has a different assessment of our greatest need.
In her remarkable book A Place of Healing: Wrestling with the mysteries of suffering, pain and God's sovereignty, Joni Eareckson Tada – who knows more about paralysis than most of us – writes how "God works everything in accordance with His plan. And that plan often (actually, most often) allows for suffering or quadriplegia to continue for good and well-considered reasons that we often can't understand or discern this side of heaven."
The article in The Onion doesn't ultimately offer anything in its mockery except despair. By contrast, the actions of Jesus in Mark 2 demonstrate that – even when he doesn't immediately respond to what we regard as our greatest need – he is, in the end, wholly and completely worthy of our trust.
The Rough Guide to Discipleship is a fortnightly devotional series. David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex.