Ver. 2, 3. “Now there is at Jerusalem a sheep pool, called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of halt, blind, withered, waiting for the moving of the water.”
What manner of cure is this? What mystery doth it signify to us? For these things are not written carelessly, or without a purpose, but as by a figure and type they show in outline things to come, in order that what was exceedingly strange might not by coming unexpectedly harm among the many the power of faith. What then is it that they show in outline? A Baptism was about to be given, possessing much power, and the greatest of gifts, a Baptism purging all sins, and making men alive instead of dead. These things then are foreshown as in a picture by the pool, and by many other circumstances. And first is given a water which purges the stains of our bodies, and those defilements which are not, but seem to be, as those from touching the dead, those from leprosy, and other similar causes; under the old covenant one may see many things done by water on this account. However, let us now proceed to the matter in hand.
First then, as I before said, He causeth defilements of our bodies, and afterwards infirmities of different kinds, to be done away by water. Because God, desiring to bring us nearer to faith in baptism, no longer healeth defilements only, but diseases also. For those figures which came nearer [in time] to the reality, both as regarded Baptism, and the Passion, and the rest, were plainer than the more ancient; and as the guards near the person of the prince are more splendid than those before, so was it with the types. And “an Angel came down and troubled the water,” and endued it with a healing power, that the Jews might learn that much more could the Lord of Angels heal the diseases of the soul. Yet as here it was not simply the nature of the water that healed, (for then this would have always taken place,) but water joined to the operation of the Angel; so in our case, it is not merely the water that worketh, but when it hath received the grace of the Spirit, then it putteth away all our sins. Around this pool “lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water”; but then infirmity was a hindrance to him who desired to be healed, now each hath power to approach, for now it is not an Angel that troubleth, it is the Lord of Angels who worketh all. The sick man cannot now say, “I have no man”; he cannot say, “While I am coming another steppeth down before me”; though the whole world should come, the grace is not spent, the power is not exhausted, but remaineth equally great as it was before. Just as the sun’s beams give light every day, yet are not exhausted, nor is their light made less by giving so abundant a supply; so, and much more, the power of the Spirit is in no way lessened by the numbers of those who enjoy it. And this miracle was done in order that men, learning that it is possible by water to heal the diseases of the body, and being exercised in this for a long time, might more easily believe that it can also heal the diseases of the soul.
But why did Jesus, leaving the rest, come to one who was of thirty-eight years standing? And why did He ask him, “Wilt thou be made whole?” Not that He might learn, that was needless; but that He might show the man’s perseverance, and that we might know that it was on this account that He left the others and came to him. What then saith he? “Yea Lord,” he saith, but “I have no man when the water is troubled to put me into the pool, but while I am coming another steppeth down before me.”
It was that we might learn these circumstances that Jesus asked, “Wilt thou be made whole?” and said not, “Wilt thou that I heal thee?” (for as yet the man had formed no exalted notions concerning Him,) but “Wilt thou be made whole?” Astonishing was the perseverance of the paralytic, he was of thirty and eight years standing, and each year hoping to be freed from his disease, he continued in attendance, and withdrew not. Had he not been very persevering, would not the future, if not the past, have been sufficient to lead him from the spot? Consider, I pray you, how watchful it was likely that the other sick men there would be since the time when the water was troubled was uncertain. The lame and halt indeed might observe it, but how did the blind see? Perhaps they learnt it from the clamor which arose.
[2.] Let us be ashamed then, beloved, let us be ashamed, and groan over our excessive sloth. “Thirty and eight years” had that man been waiting without obtaining what he desired, and withdrew not. And he had failed not through any carelessness of his own, but through being oppressed and suffering violence from others, and not even thus did he grow dull; while we if we have persisted for ten days to pray for anything and have not obtained it, are too slothful afterwards to employ the same zeal. And on men we wait for so long a time, warring and enduring hardships and performing servile ministrations, and often at last failing in our expectation, but on our Master, from whom we are sure to obtain a recompense greater than our labors, (for, saith the Apostle, “Hope maketh not ashamed”— Rom. v. 5 ,) on Him we endure not to wait with becoming diligence. What chastisement doth this deserve! For even though we could receive nothing from Him, ought we not to deem the very conversing with Him continually the cause of ten thousand blessings? “But continual prayer is a laborious thing.” And what that belongs to virtue is not laborious? “In truth,” says some one, “this very point is full of great difficulty, that pleasure is annexed to vice, and labor to virtue.” And many, I think, make this a question. What then can be the reason? God gave us at the beginning a life free from care and exempt from labor. We used not the gift aright, but were perverted by doing nothing, and were banished from Paradise. On which account He made our life for the future one of toil, assigning as it were His reasons for this to mankind, and saying, “I allowed you at the beginning to lead a life of enjoyment, but ye were rendered worse by liberty, wherefore I commanded that henceforth labor and sweat be laid upon you.” And when even this labor did not restrain us, He next gave us a law containing many commandments, imposing it on us like bits and curbs placed upon an unruly horse to restrain his prancings, just as horse breakers do. This is why life is laborious, because not to labor is wont to be our ruin. For our nature cannot bear to be doing nothing, but easily turns aside to wickedness.
Let us suppose that the man who is temperate, and he who rightly performs the other virtues, has no need of labor, but that they do all things in their sleep, still how should we have employed our ease? Would it not have been for pride and boastfulness? “But wherefore,” saith some one, “has great pleasure been attached to vice, great labor and toil to virtue?” Why, what thanks wouldest thou have had, and for what wouldest thou have received a reward, if the matter had not been one of difficulty? Even now I can show you many who naturally hate intercourse with women, and avoid conversation with them as impure; shall we then call these chaste, shall we crown these, tell me, and proclaim them victors? By no means. Chastity is self-restraint, and the mastering pleasures which fight, just as in war the trophies are most honorable when the contest is violent, not when no one raises a hand against us. Many are by their very nature passionless; shall we call these good tempered? Not at all. And so the Lord after naming three manners of the eunuch state, leaveth two of them uncrowned, and admitteth one into the kingdom of heaven. ( Matt. xix. 12.) “But what need,” saith one, “was there of wickedness?” I say this too. “What is it then which made wickedness to be?” What but our willful negligence? “But,” saith one, “there ought to be only good men.” Well, what is proper to the good man? Is it to watch and be sober, or to sleep and snore? “And why,” saith one, “seemed it not good that a man should act rightly without laboring?” Thou speakest words which become the cattle or gluttons, or who make their belly their god. For to prove that these are the words of folly, answer me this. Suppose there were a king and a general, and while the king was asleep or drunk, the general should endure hardship and erect a trophy, whose would you count the victory to be? who would enjoy the pleasure of what was done? Seest thou that the soul is more especially disposed towards those things for which she hath labored? and therefore God hath joined labors to virtue, wishing to make us attached to her. For this cause we admire virtue, even although we act not rightly ourselves, while we condemn vice even though it be very pleasant. And if thou sayest, “Why do we not admire those who are good by nature more than those who are so by choice?” we reply, Because it is just to prefer him that laboreth to him that laboreth not. For why is it that we labor? It is because thou didst not bear with moderation the not laboring. Nay more, if one enquire exactly, in other ways also sloth is wont to undo us, and to cause us much trouble. Let us, if you will, shut a man up, only feeding and pampering him, not allowing him to walk nor conducting him forth to work, but let him enjoy table and bed, and be in luxury continually; what could be more wretched than such a life? “But,” saith one, “to work is one thing, to labor is another.” Yea, but it was in man’s power then to work without labor. “And is this,” saith he, “possible?” Yea, it is possible; God even desired it, but thou enduredst it not. Therefore He placed thee to work in the garden, marking out employment, but joining with it no labor. For had man labored at the beginning, God would not afterwards have put labor by way of punishment. For it is possible to work and not to be wearied, as do the angels. To prove that they work, hear what David saith; “Ye that excel in strength, ye that do His word.” ( Ps. ciii. 20 , LXX.) Want of strength causeth much labor now, but then it was not so. For “he that hath entered into His rest, hath ceased,” saith one, “from his works, as God from His” ( Heb. iv. 10 ): not meaning here idleness, but the ceasing from labor. For God worketh even now, as Christ saith, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.” ( c. v. 17.)
Wherefore I exhort you that, laying aside all carelessness, you be zealous for virtue. For the pleasure of wickedness is short, but the pain lasting; of virtue, on the contrary, the joy grows not old, the labor is but for a season. Virtue even before the crowns are distributed animates her workman, and feeds him with hopes; vice even before the time of vengeance punishes him who works for her, wringing and terrifying his conscience, and making it apt to imagine all (evils). Are not these things worse than any labors, than any toils? And if these things were not so, if there were pleasure, what could be more worthless than that pleasure? for as soon as it appears it flies away, withering and escaping before it has been grasped, whether you speak of the pleasure of beauty, or that of luxury, or that of wealth, for they cease not daily to decay. But when there is besides (for this pleasure) punishment and vengeance, what can be more miserable than those who go after it? Knowing then this, let us endure all for virtue, so shall we enjoy true pleasure, through the grace and lovingkindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom to the Father and the Holy [Spirit] be glory, now and ever, and world without end. Amen.