The famed Aesop relays the story of a wagoner who was driving a heavy load of cargo along a road muddied by a recent rainstorm. The wagoner came to a spot where the road was especially treacherous and his wheels sunk deep into the mire. The harder the wagoner whipped his horses to pull, the deeper his wheels sank. Finally, the wagoner exited his chariot, knelt, and prayed to Hercules: "O Hercules, help me in this my hour of distress." Incredibly, Hercules appeared and responded: "Tut, man, don't sprawl there. Get up and put your shoulder to the wheel. The gods help those who help themselves." Such is the origin of this well-known cliché.
Not only is the above cliché well known, it is also widely believed, even among Christians. In fact, in a recent survey, some eighty percent of Christians who describe themselves as "born-again" believe that Aesop's moralism is a direct quote from the Bible!
As it is in our day, so it was in ancient antiquity. The sentiment that "God helps those who help themselves" was well regarded among the theological elite of Jesus' day. The rabbis taught, for instance, that God would not help sinners or liars. But then Jesus came to this earth. And Jesus, contrary to prevailing theological sentiments, believed and acted as if God, instead of only helping those who can help themselves, actually helps those who can't help themselves. Such is the case in our reading for today from Luke 5.
In this chapter, Luke introduces us to a paralytic - an archetypal image of a helpless man. By this point, Jesus' reputation as a healer has already spread so far and wide and that a huge crowd gathers, hoping to see another miraculous salving. But in the case of this paralytic, Jesus surprises everyone. Rather than soothing his sickness, Jesus says to this man: "Friend, your sins are forgiven" (verse 20). The crowd thought it was this man's paralysis that made him helpless. Jesus had another idea. It was his sin that left him truly helpless. For his sin paralyzed him not physically, but spiritually.
The rabbis taught, "A sick man does not recover from his sickness until all his sins are forgiven him" (Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 41a). Jesus, in this instance, extols the salutariness of this rabbinical statement and does what is more vital first: he forgives this man's sins. Ironically, the religious leaders, contrary to their own teaching and tradition, become indignant: "Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone" (verse 21)? Jesus, in order demonstrate his authority to forgive sins, responds, "That you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins... I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home" (verse 24). And the man does! The man is no longer helpless - physically or spiritually. For he has been healed and forgiven by Christ.
The unequivocal affirmation of Scripture is that we are all helpless. Sin has left us this way. And yet, God's good news is that "while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly" (Romans 5:6). God doesn't help those who can help themselves, he helps those who can't help themselves.
So where are you feeling helpless? Has your financial situation spiraled out of control? Is a relationship in shambles? Is there a sinful addiction you just can't break? Before you vainly try to help yourself, cry out to God for his help - for his strength, endurance, and forgiveness. Because it's then, and only then, that you can take appropriate and wise steps to help yourself - and others.