“Why do you think evil in your hearts?”
Jesus of Nazareth directed the question to the scribes who lingered among us. He had landed in Capernaum only a short time earlier, and—after permitting him time to greet his hosts and joke and jostle with some of the children—we had brought him to see a friend of ours, recently struck down with a paralysis we could not understand.
The scribes, who beyond their official capacities were naturally nosy types and self-appointed historians of our neighborhoods, had followed along, watching to see what he would do.
What they saw was something quiet and mostly unspectacular, at least at first. The rabbi had squatted over our friend, surveying him with compassion—with a look of love that seemed at once familiar and detached, that asked nothing, expected nothing, demanded nothing.
Seated head on, as I was, my heart was struck by the softness of the look, and by its power. In Jesus’ expression there was that almost slavish, besotted look that parents give to a helpless newborn, whose whole life and mystery of being has yet to be imagined or mapped out. Will the child be a good person, a bad person, a hero or a hellion? The parent’s love doesn’t care—doesn’t depend upon knowing any of that. It is not withheld, as though waiting until the fullness of the being in their arms is wholly known in the world before deciding whether their love is justified.
No, it is a love freely given, unconditional, focused only on the life they behold—helpless but full of possibilities.
And the look of such a parental love, the very glance of it, beaming outward, carries a whole weight of creation in its gaze. It sees potential and says “yes” to it.
Perhaps that’s why the look doesn’t last very long, why it goes away, flees even from our parents eyes as we age and the world begins to work on us, and our personalities become formed and set—as much by all the ways love is broken, messy, and hurtful as by its singular glory. The feeling remains, but within the eye of love the gleam is eventually blurred, like a clear pool gone silty after a series of storms.
Our friend was like any of us, a man inclined to do right most days, but quite able to fall into error or wrongdoing on others; a man happy to give alms but also to hold back on his earnings, to fool the taxman. To raise his children with indulgence while casting a disdainful eye at the children of others. A man who hoped to see G-d when he died, but was familiar enough with his own sinfulness to tremble, sometimes, especially in those small, lonely hours of the night, at the thought of his death.
As such, he was unprepared for the knowing, unguarded depth and directness of the gaze Jesus brought to him, or the small smile that graced his face as he looked over our friend, from head to toe. “Take heart, my son,” he had offered, his head drawn near, his speech warmly intimate. “Your sins are forgiven.”
When he had been struck down, no longer able to walk or speak, we were all saddened. A man whose usefulness is gone becomes only a burden, his worth weighted by whatever alms might come to him. The only reason to rejoice, one teacher told us, was for the sake of his soul, which—no longer subject to the sins of the body—would be freed of darkness, made pure by the sheer lack of ability to sin.
But that didn’t seem to be what Jesus was saying. He wasn’t looking at our friend as though he were a shell without value—quite the contrary. And he wasn’t saying, “Be glad you can no longer sin.” He was saying, rather, that our friend’s sins were forgiven.
The scribes were quick to seize on the distinction and challenge Jesus. Who did he think he was, forgiving sins, which is an action reserved to G-d alone?
And that was when he asked the question that has been burning within my breast, ever since: “Why do you think evil in your hearts?”
He asked it of the scribes, of course, against all of their doubts—against their concerns, whether real or contrived, on behalf of a God who surely preferred their own obedience, their own mercies, over their protections.
But in that instance, I knew it was a question meant for me, too, and for all of us gathered present, including my friend, laying powerless on the ground, whose eyes had grown wide at the asking.
Once the question left Jesus’ mouth, it was all but forgotten by what followed. Declaring that his authority to dispense a sin-cleansing mercy was real, he proved his point, telling our friend to rise—to take the mat upon which he was laying and go back to his home.
As those around us gasped, my friend rose and, after thanking Jesus and praising the Lord of heaven, did as he was told. I went with him, offering a steadying arm, although my friend did not seem to need it. We entered his house to great rejoicing, and to a meal of meat, quickly prepared, and with wine overflowing.
And late in the night, as the heavens grew alive and bright—the stars blinking or falling away, just like our lives—I asked my friend whether he too had felt penetrated by the simple question Jesus had asked. “I saw your expression,” I insisted, “how your eyes grew wide . . .”
My friend put down his wine, reaching across from where we each were sitting and grabbing my wrist. “Yes. Because until that moment, I never understood.”
He shook his head in wonder, his eyes holding mine. “He had already pronounced me forgiven, and yet in that instant—with his question to the scribes—I saw all of my sins, and how each of them originated not in the body, but in my mind and heart. I saw how, even in my helpless state, I gave offense to heaven. In all of the ways I’d looked upon women as they walked by me, imagining what I could and would do with them, if only my body would obey; in how—even as I lay immobile, dependent upon the help of others to simply relieve myself—I still dared to judge the way one man held his head too high as he walked, how another seemed to ugly to be lovable, how this one’s skin was too mottled, how that one was too dark.” His grip weakened on my wrist, but his voice was low fervent.
“I understood the truth of it—that my own heart had made room for wickedness and then entertained it, giving it welcome with ever-more frequency. Without knowing how, or when, I’d permitted my heart to become filled with hate, with suspicion, with lust. With pride and vanity for myself and doubt for everyone else.”
“And now, my friend,” I asked, barely able to breathe in the face of his intensity. “Is your heart healed? Is it cleansed, and better?” I had to know.
He closed his eyes for a moment, letting loose with a deep sigh before once more raising his head, first to me, and then to heaven.
“Today, this night, my heart is broken.” he whispered. “And it is better.”