Today we celebrate the World Day of Prayer service bringing to mind the struggles of women across the world, especially our sisters in Zimbabwe. I want us to reflect today on ‘the Gospel according to the Mat’ (John 5:2-9a). So, welcome to the gospel according to the perspective of the mat!
I am the mat… like the symbol received as you entered the chapel. I am the mat, on which the hero of our story lays for 38 years, waiting to be healed. I was with him waiting all along.
I waited long enough to realize that I was not the magic carpet of Aladdin. Even after 38 years, I could not transport him to the magical pool when the water was disturbed by the mythical angel.
I was not the only mat around. There were many of us holding those that the system had named as the ‘invalids’. In fact, literally speaking, we held the system in place. The system, which had successfully, made the people believe that there was only one solution to their problems. The system, which had made the suffering people competitors to one another in a context where compassion was needed instead. The system, where the blame for not being healed was placed on the sick people themselves.
The Greek word for paralytic literally means ‘dried out’. This system had literally dried out both the body and spirit of my owner.
Then, one day, something special happened. A young man appeared on the scene. He came to my owner and asked him to do something different. He did not ask him to compete against the others, or get down to the pool first, but instead asked him to rise, take up his mat and walk.
By asking my owner to take up the mat – this young man, whose name was Jesus, was asking my owner to give up the very system he had believed in and relied on for the past 38 years. He was asking him to courageously embrace a new way of living - a way that was not dependent on the system or its brokers.
Once my owner acted upon his words, I ceased to be a symbol of the system that kept him dependent and enslaved. I became a symbol of transformation. It was time for me to be folded up and carried away. Folding me up and tucking me under his shoulders was like bidding goodbye to the system.
It was interesting that the man, who healed my owner, did not ask my owner to abandon me by the poolside. Instead he was to carry me around – as a sign of transformation. I was no longer the sign of bondage; I was a living sign of liberation and freedom. That is the point I want to make today – many of us who are often thought to be part of the system can also become the signs of its transformation.
Let me explain more.
When people saw me folded up in the man’s hand – they saw it as a sign that the structure had been changed. So, they started questioning - who is responsible for this? How could this change happen now? I realized that I had become almost a teaching tool. This was the way that Jesus, the man who healed my owner, brought about transformation. He often did things which provoked people to examine their own beliefs and way of life. His acts of healing became a moment of teaching – a moment of questioning the system through the eyes and ears of those who were most oppressed by it.
I know you are not here today to hear a silly mat speak to you. Today I want to draw your attention to many other living mat in our world, who from being symbols of an enslaving system have been transformed into signs of transformation.
Whose lives have become teaching tools like the folded mat?
One story I want to share is that of the Women of Zimbabwe Arise, or WOZA campaign. The WOZA campaign is a civic movement which emerged to provide women with a voice and visibility to foster change in Zimbabwe. This movement uses a campaign of “tough love,” using the traditional role and moral authority of a mother, calling for a new kind of society where equality and social justice prevail.
What is interesting about the campaign is how the women transformed their time under arrest, as a chance to educate others about human rights and correct those in positions of power who are harassing the people. With demonstrations of love— WOZA women provide the nation with a new way to hold policymakers accountable.
Today, we remember all such living mats that standout as symbols of transformation.
We need to ask ourselves about how often have we become a part of enslaving structures. We need to remind ourselves of the urgency in becoming signs of transformation. Today the words of Jesus Christ, to the crippled man come to us afresh -- Arise, take up your mat and walk.
The time to act is now. Let us rise in faith, lift up our mat in hope and walk in love. Amen.
Written by Rebecca Sangeetha, a theologian and a New Testament scholar. She loves to do contextual interpretations of the Biblical stories through the eyes of a woman, especially Dalit women, marginalised communities of women, men and children. A graduate of the United Theological College, Bangalore, and the King’s College London (M.Phil.), she currently works at the Lutheran World Federation, Geneva, Switzerland, and belongs to the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church, India. This reflection was delivered on the World Day of Prayer celebration, March 6th, at the Ecumenical Centre chapel in Geneva.