In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus heals the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda. The healing here is much like what we read in Mark 2, where Jesus tells the paralytic that his sins are forgiven, and then to rise, take up his mat, and walk. In a similar manner, Jesus later tells the healed man to no longer sin, lest something worse happen. I believe what the Lord is telling us on this point is that the wages of sin are far worse than any physical ailment. Better to enter heaven with one arm, than to find oneself in hell with both arms intact. The imagery is powerful. Again, the Lord Jesus asks whether it is worthwhile to gain the world, but lose one’s soul. Of course, nothing is better than God. The world and everything it has to offer is nothing compared to Heaven.
An important thing to note about today’s passage, related to the John 9 reading from this past Sunday, is that a person’s sin and physical ailment or disease are not necessarily connected. An inattentive reading of Jesus' admonition to the healed paralytic might give rise to the thought that there is such a necessary connection. This would represent a very low view of God, one akin to pagan deities that are said to lash out in anger if they do not get their way or reward and punish capriciously.
There are indeed temporal consequences for all choices we make, whether for virtue or vice. If we choose to drink and drive, we risk our lives and the lives of others. Likewise, if we go skydiving (as safe as that might statistically be), we take certain risks. Choosing to eat well, rest, and exercise also has consequences (usually an improvement in health).
From a Christian perspective, natural evils (i.e. diseases, etc.) are, in a manner of speaking, the result of cosmic rebellion. Any type of rebellion against the divine order by creaturely agents, whether, angelic or human, causes disorder. Man is afflicted in these instances as a result of Original Sin. I mean this insofar as we no longer live in the protection and tranquility of paradise in harmony with God and the surrounding creation. The disorder that ensues from rebellion spills over into the terrestrial sphere we occupy. When our first parents were cast out, they made themselves and their offspring subject to corruption and death. It was a supernatural gift from God whereby man was contingently corruptible. Our first parents forfeited this gift, along with the moral rectitude necessary to rightly order all actions. This resulted in their progeny being susceptible, and a party to spreading, disease, decay, and corruption (body/soul separation).
Given the post-Fall world we occupy, we cannot presume that any person suffers affliction because of sins they or their parents committed. This is a bridge too far. Ezekiel chapter 18 also teaches very clearly the principle that God does not hold sons guilty for the sins of their fathers. The guilt of sin is borne by the one who sins. Sons may indeed inherit the consequences of their father’s sin, much like all of us inherit the consequences of sin committed by our first parents. But the son is not punished by God for the sins of the father.
Along these lines, someone might say that God may punish an individual person for their own sins by allowing them to be afflicted with a disease. Punishment in this case not in the retributive way as we commonly think of it, but with an end toward reform. One may argue that providential direction moves in these circumstances so the person’s soul will be eventually saved. For example, a very wild and rambunctious person is injured in an auto accident and must use a wheelchair. Their mobility limitations become an integral part of their departure from a life of vice to seek answers from God. In turn, this leads them to salvation.
Such possibilities are instructive in the type of humility and circumspection the Lord desires of us. Determinations about exactly what God is doing in particular situations are not our purview. The antidote for any inclination in this direction is to do what Jesus says in terms of loving and caring for our fellow man. A material part of such an effort would be to avoid presuming we have some glimpse into the providential workings of their lives. In our prophetic office given in baptism, we are of course called to show people the straight and narrow path, to warn them of all the dangers of sin. Yet no part of this involves presumption or haughtiness.
Thus, we can find a great consistency in the words Jesus says to the paralytic in today’s passage (“...do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may happen to you…”) and what the Lord says to His disciples at the beginning of John 9.