When we pray for what we want—and God gives us something else
A Reflection for Friday of the First Week in Ordinary Time
Find today’s readings here.
When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days,
it became known that he was at home.
Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them,
not even around the door,
and he preached the word to them.
They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.
Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd,
they opened up the roof above him.
After they had broken through,
they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to him,
“Child, your sins are forgiven.”
Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves,
“Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming.
Who but God alone can forgive sins?”
Jesus immediately knew in his mind what
they were thinking to themselves,
so he said, “Why are you thinking such things in your hearts?
Which is easier, to say to the paralytic,
‘Your sins are forgiven,’
or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk’?
But that you may know
that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth”
–he said to the paralytic,
“I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.”
He rose, picked up his mat at once,
and went away in the sight of everyone.
They were all astounded
and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this.” (Mk 2:1-12)
“You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find…” With apologies to the Rolling Stones—presumably, they never intended to be scriptural exegetes—their lyrical adage is a fitting one for today’s Gospel. The paralyzed man and his friends want one thing from Jesus: a cure. What they get is something entirely unexpected, something that seems impossible, even for folks willing to believe in Jesus’ power to heal infirmities.
While the story of the raising of Lazarus in the Gospel of John may be a more famous example of Jesus offering an unexpected miracle—something literally “amazing” in the Koine Greek—in response to an expression of faith, today’s account of the healing (and forgiveness) of the paralyzed man is perhaps even more startling when one considers its context.
It does not come after Jesus’ healing ministry, but rather near its very beginning, when he is still calling together his disciples and letting his messianic secret be known bit by bit. I imagine it would not be easy to keep such a secret once a paralyzed man gets up “in the sight of everyone” and walks away—and further, tells everyone his healer also forgave his sins. But Jesus does it anyway, even though the consequences are immediate.
When we pray to God, we very rarely get what we ask for—but we might quite often receive an unexpected grace of far greater significance.
Meanwhile, the pals of the paralyzed man are not subtle in their conviction that Jesus is going to do something to help their friend. Presumably, they don’t heed the opinion of the residents of the home, because that roof ain’t gonna fix itself. (“This Jesus, he healed the sick but he didn’t repair my roof,” the owner later complained in small claims court. “Who’s gonna make me whole?”) In response to their faith in Jesus and their insistence on a physical cure, Jesus acts—but not at all how they expect.
The physical cure comes, all right, but not until after Jesus performs the true miracle, the blasphemous act reserved only to God: He forgives sins. A precursor of what he does for all of us, it is also a reminder, just like the story of Lazarus, that when we pray to God, we very rarely get what we ask for—but we might quite often receive an unexpected grace of far greater significance.
Pope Francis made a similar point about this passage in a 2021 homily on why it seems that God rarely answers our prayers. “We see that at times Jesus’ response is immediate, whereas in some other cases it is delayed: It seems that God does not answer….On some occasions, therefore, the solution to the problem is not immediate. In our life too, each one of us has this experience,” he said. “Let us look back a little: How many times have we asked for a grace, a miracle, let’s say, and nothing has happened. Then, over time, things have worked out but in God’s way, the divine way, not according to what we wanted in that moment. God’s time is not our time.”
Of course, the paralyzed man in today’s Gospel wins twice—his sins are forgiven and he can walk. Often enough, that is not the case in our daily entreaties to God; we don’t get what we want, and so we hope we might get what we need. But Jesus’ healing in these two miraculous ways is still a reminder that our requests in our prayer are limited by us—by our lack of imagination, by our lack of faith, by our lack of trust—not by God. That is true whether we are praying for what we need or simply for what we want.