The mat marked his place by the pool. If he picked up his mat and walked away, he might lose his place. This was his place, this is where he hung out, where he lived.
Where do I hang out mentally? Where is my head most of the time? What kinds of thoughts or concerns occupy my mind, or captivate my heart?
What is it that I’m supposed to leave behind when I follow Jesus?
I can think of three things that this (formerly) lame man would have had to leave behind if Jesus was to become anything more than his healer, or if he was to stop being crippled spiritually.
He would have had to leave behind a religious way of coming to life — where everything is laid out and determined ahead of time. Just follow the rules, show up when you’re supposed to. Do what you’re told. Play it safe, and hopefully things will work out for you in the end.
The only problem with this man picking up his mat and walking away is that it was the Sabbath. Carrying your mat on the Sabbath was uncharted territory. It was “work,” and work was prohibited on the Sabbath.
What feels safe about a religious way of living is that it seems the most likely way to keep from sinning. Trouble is, it isn’t. It tends to just cover up our sins, the mental sins and the sins of the heart, where we tend to hang out, where we live a lot of the time. Eventually stuff comes out of our mouths that reflects what’s in our hearts. Before long, our actions also end up betraying our real thoughts and attitudes.
Thing is, Jesus also tells the man to leave his sin behind: “Look, you have become well. Don’t sin anymore, lest anything worse happen to you” (John 5:14). Holding to the law hadn’t kept this man from sinning. Nor was Jesus saying that this healed lame man didn’t have to worry about sin anymore. Jesus states the obvious — sin is destructive, at all sorts of levels.
So the man is being told to leave behind both his religious way of living and his sinful way of living. Finally, there was his victim way of living. Earlier he complained that other people always got to the pool ahead of him when the water was “stirred up” (apparently by angels). And now he was really in a pickle. How would he support himself? What would he do for a living? What if the Jewish leaders blacklisted him because he desecrated the Sabbath and got healed on the wrong day?
Even after we’ve been touched by Jesus and committed our lives to him, it’s hard not to revert back to old ways of thinking and living.
There is a bit of ambiguity hanging over what the healed man does next. He goes and tells the religious leaders who it was that had healed him. Earlier when they’d asked him, he said he didn’t know. But after Jesus tells him his name, the man rushes to give the religious leaders the information they wanted.
On the surface, the man seems to be “witnessing” to the religious leaders about what happened to him. But you get the sense that his motives were less than pure. He wanted to be in their good graces. He probably wanted to feel important. He didn’t want them angry at him. He wanted to make sure he wasn’t blacklisted. He might need their help going forward with his life.
So was this man a witness or an informer? Was he promoting Jesus or protecting himself?
I’m guessing that what this man had done “for a living” for the last 38 years was “exchange information.” He and his friends may have passed the time by gossiping. Being able to share privileged information gives you a sense of importance. That’s how he got by.
As a pastor, I know how easy it is to focus on “privileged” information about Jesus rather than Jesus himself – to be an informer rather than an actual follower. Handing out information about Jesus can make you feel important. (Of course, there is the Monday morning quarterbacking when you feel just the opposite.) What I’m learning is that the only way to keep it about Jesus is staying connected to Jesus himself – to the person and not just the information.
It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the guy who was healed that he could have used his new freedom to follow Jesus, which, come to think of it, is probably the only “safe” way to live — if you’re not going to revert back to a religious way of living and also manage to stay away from sinning.
In the next chapter, Jesus says that the real work we have to do is believe in him (John 6:28-29). If we really believe in him, we’re going to pretty much make him our whole life. We’re going to be talking to him as if he’s right here, because he is right here. We’re going to be constantly asking him for advice, as well as looking for opportunities to bear witness to who he is and what he’s done for us.
It’s going to feel like an honor, not a religious obligation, to be on mission with him, while being yoked to him.