Taken from the Gospel Commentary of St. John
by St. Augustine
John 5, 1-9
1 Then there was a feast of the Jews and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2 There is in Jerusalem, at the door of the Sheep, a swimming pool, called in Hebrew Betzaetà, with five arcades, 3under which lay a large number of sick, blind, lame and paralytic. 4 An angel in fact at certain times descended into the pool and waved the water; the first to enter it after the agitation of the water healed from any disease was affected 5 There was a man who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 Jesus saw him lying down and, knowing that he had been like this for a long time, said to him: “Do you want to heal?” 7 The sick man replied: “Sir, I have no one to dive into the pool when the water shakes. While I’m about to go there, a few more come down before me.” 8 Jesus said to him: “Get up, take your lettuce and walk”. 9 And on the instant that man healed and, taking his lettuce, began to walk. But that day was a Saturday.
Healing of a paralytic at the probatic pool.
Descending into the agitated water meant humbly believing in the Lord’s passion. Only one was healed in it to signify unity. No one else was healed, because anyone who separates from unity cannot be healed.
The paralyzed healed symbol of unity
1. It should come as no surprise that God has performed a miracle; it would be surprising if a man had accomplished it. It should fill us with wonder and joy more with the fact that the Lord and saviour of our Jesus Christ has become man than the fact that he has done divine things among men. It is more important for our salvation what he has done for men than what he has done among men; and it matters more to have healed the vices of souls than to have healed the diseases of mortal bodies. But since the soul itself did not know the one who had to heal it, and had eyes in the flesh to see the physical facts while he still had no healthy eyes in his heart to know God who was hidden, the Lord did things that she could see, to heal those other eyes that were unable to see him. He entered a place where lay a great multitude of the sick, blind, lame, paralytic; and since he was the doctor of souls and bodies, and had come to heal all the souls of believers in him, among all he chose one to heal, to signify unity. If we consider superficially and according to the human way of understanding and knowing things, we will find here neither a great miracle if we think of the power of him, nor an act of great goodness if we think of his benignity. There were many, the sick, and only one was healed: yet the Lord, with one word, could have put them all back on his feet. What should we conclude, if not that power and goodness operated more with the purpose that souls meant through his gestures the sense that they possess in respect of eternal health, than in order to provide some benefit to bodies in regard to temporal health? Because the health of bodies, the true one, which we expect from the Lord, will be obtained at the end of the centuries when the dead rise again: then, what will live will no longer die, what will be healed will no longer be sick; those who have been satiated will no longer be hungry or thirsty, what will then be renewed will no longer grow older. If we consider, now, the facts worked by the Lord and saviour of our Jesus Christ, we see that the eyes of the blind that he opened, were closed by death, and the members of the paralytics he regrouped, were again disintegrated by death; and so all health temporarily restored to mortal members, in the end it failed, while the soul that believed passed to eternal life. With the healing of this sick the Lord wanted to offer a great sign to the soul that he would believe, whose sins he had come to put back and whose infirmities he had come to heal with his humiliation. I intend to speak as I can of the profound mystery of this fact and this sign, according to which the Lord will grant me, counting on your attention and prayer to the aid of my weakness. My insufficiency will be made up for by the Lord, with the help of which I do what I can.
2. I know I have told you more than once about this pool which had five porches, in which lay a great multitude of sick people: what I will say will not be a new thing for many of you. However, there is no point in going back over the things that have already been said: so that those who do not yet know them will be able to learn them, and those who know them will be able to deepen them. It will not be necessary to dwell on it for long: a brief statement will suffit. I think that pool and that water means the Jewish people. That the waters symbolize the peoples tells us clearly John in the Apocalypse, when, having been shown many waters and having asked what they meant, he was told that the waters are the peoples (Cfr. Ap 17, 15). That water, therefore, that people, was surrounded by the five books of Moses as if by five arcades. But those books were meant to reveal infirmity, not to heal the sick. The law in fact forced men to recognize themselves as sinners, but did not absolve them. Therefore, the letter without grace created culprits, who, recognizing themselves as such, would be freed from grace. This is what the Apostle says: if a law capable of giving life had been granted, justice would really come from the law. Why, then, was the law given? The Apostle continues: But Scripture has everything locked up under sin, so that believers may be granted the promise by virtue of faith in Jesus Christ (Gal 3:21-22). Nothing clearer. Do they not give us, perhaps, these words, the explanation of the five arcades and the multitude of the sick? The five arcades represent the law. Why couldn’t the five arcades heal the sick? Because if a law was granted that could give life, justice would really come from the law. Why couldn’t they heal the ones they contained? Because Scripture has locked everything under sin, so that believers may be granted the promise by virtue of faith in Jesus Christ.
3. And why did they heal in the agitated water, how many could not heal in the arcades? In fact, you could see the water suddenly stirring and you couldn’t see who was waving it. It is to be believed that this was done by angelic virtue, not without allusion to a mystery. As soon as the water was stirred, the first sick person who could dive into it healed; after him, whoever else threw himself into the water, did it unnecessarily. That means this, if not that only one Christ has come for the Jewish people and, through his great works, with his salutary teachings, has troubled sinners; with his presence stirred the waters provoking his passion? But he waved the water while remaining hidden. Indeed, if they had known him, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory (1 Cor 2:8). Descending into the agitated water means, therefore, humbly believing in the Lord’s passion. Only one was healed in the pool to signify unity. Whoever came next, he wasn’t healed because out of the unit you can’t heal.
The sacred meaning of number forty
4. Let us now see what the Lord wanted to mean with that one who only among all the sick healed, in order, as we have already said, to preserve the mystery of unity. In the years of his illness he encountered a number that symbolized infirmity. He had been ill for thirty-eight years (Jn 5:5). It should be explained a little better how this number refers more to the disease than to healing. Be careful, please: the Lord will help me to speak appropriately, so that you can hear enough. The forty is a sacred number and is a symbol of perfection. I believe that this is known to your Charity. This is insistently attested by the divine scriptures. Fasting, as you know, received its sacred character from this number. Moses fasted forty days (Cf. Ex 34: 28), just as Elijah (cf. 1 King 19:8), and the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ himself with his fast came to this number of days (Cfr. Mt 4,2). Now, Moses represents the Law, Elijah the Prophets, the Lord the Gospel. For this reason all three appeared on that mountain, where the Lord showed himself to the dazzling disciples in his face and in his robe (Cfr. Mt 17, 1-3). He appeared in the midst of Moses and Elijah, as if to signify that the Gospel received testimony from the Law and from the Prophets (Cfr. Rm 3, 21). Both in the Law, therefore, and in the Prophets and in the Gospel, number forty appears linked to fasting. Now, true and complete fasting, the perfect fast, consists in refraining from the iniquity and illicit pleasures of the world: so that by denying the impiety and greed of the century, one may live in this world with temperance, justice and piety. What reward, according to the Apostle, is reserved for such fasting? He goes on to say: waiting for that blessed hope and manifestation of the glory of Blessed God, and Our Saviour Jesus Christ (T 2:12-13). We celebrate in this world as a quarantine of abstinence when we live well, when we refrain from iniquity and illicit pleasures; and since this abstinence will not be without a reward, let us wait for that blessed hope and manifestation of the glory of the great God and Saviour our Jesus Christ. By virtue of this hope, when hope becomes a reality, we will receive money as a reward. It is the reward which, according to the Gospel, is given to the workers of the vineyard (Cfr. Mt 20, 9am-10am). Remember? I hope that I do not always have to remind you of everything, as if to rough and uncultivated people. You will therefore receive as a reward a money corresponding to number ten, which, added to forty, is fifty. For this reason we celebrate in penance the forty days before Easter, and in joy, like those who received the reward, the fifty days after Easter. To this salutary discipline of good works, to which the number forty refers, we add the money of rest and happiness, and thus we have the number fifty.
5. The Lord Jesus himself wanted to signify this more clearly, when, after the Resurrection, he spent forty days on earth with his disciples (Cfr. At 1, 3); and, ascended to heaven on the fortieth day, after another ten days, he sent the gift of the Holy Spirit (Cfr. At 2, 1-4). These mysteries have been foreshadowed, and the signs preceded reality. We are feeding on these signs, waiting to reach the permanent realities. We are workers who are still working in the vineyard; after the day, after the work has been completed, we will be given the reward. But which worker can withstand up to the reward if he does not feed during work? You do not only give your worker the mercede, but also provide him with the food necessary to refresh himself during fatigue. Yes, feed the one to whom you will give the reward. With this content of Scripture the Lord intends to nourish us too who are concerned to discover them. If we were denied the joy that comes from the intelligence of mysteries, we would fail in fatigue and no one would come to the reward.
Charity fulfillment of the law
6. In what sense, now, number forty is a symbol of the work accomplished? Perhaps because the law was divided into ten precepts, and had to be preached throughout the world, which world consists of four parts: East, West, Noon and North; so, multiplying the number ten by four, we have forty. Or, because the Gospel, which is in four books, is the fulfillment of the law, as it is said in the Gospel itself: I have not come to abolish the law, but to carry it out (Mt 5:17), Both for one reason and for the other, and for another that escapes us, even if it does not escape those who are most learned, it is certain that number forty indicates a certain perfection in good works , perfection that consists above all in the exercise of abstinence from the illicit desires of the world, that is, fasting understood in the truest sense. Listen again to the Apostle who says: Charity is the fulfilment of the law (Rm 13:10). And hence the birth of charity? From the grace of God, from the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t come from us, we’re not the authors. It is god’s gift, and God’s great gift: God’s charity has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rm 5:5). Charity, therefore, carries out the law, as has rightly been said: Charity is the fulfilment of the law. Let us seek it, this charity, as the Lord recommends to us. Remember my purpose: to explain the meaning of the thirty-eight years of that infirm; so that that thirty-eight number should refer more to the disease than to healing. Charity, I said, is the fulfilment of the law. The number forty indicates the fulfilment of the law in all actions, and charity is presented to us in two precepts. Be careful, please, and fix in your memory what I say to you, so as not to expose you to contempt for the word, making your soul a road where the seed cast does not germinate: The birds will come and eat it (M. 4:4). Welcome and all kept in your heart. There are two precepts of charity that the Lord recommends: You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind; and you will love your neighbor as yourself. To these two precepts is reduced all the Law and the Prophets (Mt 22:37-40). Rightly that poor widow who put two pennies in the treasure of the temple by offering to God, gave everything she had to live (Cfr. Lk 21, 2-4); Thus, in order to heal that sick person wounded by brigands, the hotelier received two coins (Cf. Lk 10, 35); thus, Jesus spent two days with the Samaritans to strengthen them in charity (Cfr. Jn 4:40). Being therefore the number two symbol of a good thing, through it is above all inculcated the distinct charity in two precepts. Now, if number forty means perfection of the law, and if the law is accomplished only by the dual precept of charity, is it surprising that that man has been infirm for forty years minus two?
7. Let us now see how mysteriously the Lord healed this infirm. Indeed, the Lord, master of charity, full of charity, has come to recapitalize – as he had been foretold – the word on earth (Cfr. Is 10, 23; 28, 22; Rm 9:28), and to show that in the two precepts of charity all the Law and all prophets are summarized. In these two precepts are enclosed Moses with his fast of forty days, and Elijah with his; and this number also the Lord chose in his own witness. The paralytic is healed by the Lord himself; but first what does Jesus tell him? You want to be healed? (Jn 5:6). He says he doesn’t have a man dip him in the pool. Yes, to be healed he absolutely needed a man, but a man who was also God. In fact, God is the only one, the mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tm 2:5). Then came the man who was necessary; why still postpone healing? Get up – the Lord tells him – take your lettuce and walk (Jn 5:8). Three things he said to him: Get up, get your lettuce, walk. But the word raised, he did not express the command of something to be done, but the very act of healing. To the sick already healed, the Lord then orders two things: Take your lettuce and walk. Now I ask you: was it not enough to order him: do you walk? or just say get up? Once he got up healed, he certainly wouldn’t have stayed there. Wouldn’t he get up to walk? I am also struck by the fact that the Lord commanded two things to that man whom he had found infirm for forty years minus two. It was like commanding him the other two things he lacked to get to forty.
To see God one must love one’s neighbour
8. How, now, can we see symbolized in these two orders of the Lord – Take your lettuce and walk – the two precepts? Let us remember together, o brothers, what these two precepts are. For they must be present in you: you must not call them to mind only when we remind you of them; indeed, they must never be erased from your hearts. Always, at all times, you must remember that one must love God and neighbour: God with all his heart, with the whole soul, with the whole mind, and with one’s neighbour as ourselves (Lk 10:27). This is what you must always think, always meditate, always remember, always practice, always perform perfectly. God’s love is the first to be commanded, the love of one’s neighbour is the first that must be practiced. By enunciating the two precepts of love, the Lord does not recommend first the love of one’s neighbour and then the love of God, but puts First God and then neighbour. But since God still doesn’t see him, you deserve to see him loving others. By loving your neighbour, you make your eye pure so that you can see God as John clearly says: If you do not love the brother you see, how can you love God you do not see? (1 Jn 4: 20). He tells you: he loves God. If you tell me: show me the one I must love, I will answer you with John: No one has ever seen God (Jn 1:18). With this you must in no way consider you excluded from God’s vision, because the Evangelist affirms: God is charity, and those who remain in charity remain in God (1 Jn 4:1). He therefore loves his neighbour, and aims within you the source from which the love of one’s neighbour springs: you will see us, as you can, God. So it begins with loving one’s neighbour. Break your bread with those who are hungry, and bring to your house those who are homeless; if you see an ignudo, dress it, and do not despise who is of your flesh. In doing so, what will happen? Then what aurora will erode your light (Is 58:7-8). Your light is your God. He is for you morning light, for he comes to you after the night of this world. He does not rise or set, he always shines. It will be morning light for you to come back, he who had set you down when you were lost. So, with that take your lettuce and walk, it seems to me that the Lord means: love your neighbor.
9. It remains obscure and requires explanation, in my opinion, the fact that the Lord commands the love of one’s neighbour in the act in which he orders us to take the lettuce, not seem convenient to us that one’s neighbour is compared to a rather banal and inanimate thing, as it is a lettuce. One does not offend one’s neighbour, if the Lord recommends it to us through something devoid of soul and intelligence. Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ himself was called a cornerstone, destined to bring together two walls, that is, two peoples (Cfr. Ef 2, 14-20). It was also called a cliff, from which water flowed: And that cliff was Christ (1 Cor 10,4). What wonder, then, if others are symbolized in the wood of the lettuce, since Christ was symbolized in the cliff? Not any wood, however, is a symbol of others, as not any cliff was a symbol of Christ, but that cliff from which water flowed for the thirsty; nor any stone, but the cornerstone that joined in itself the two walls of opposite origin. So you do not have to see the symbol of the next in any wood, but in the lettuce. Now I ask you: why is the next symbolized in the lettuce, if not because that man while he was infirm was brought into the lettuce, and, once healed, he was the one who brought the lettuce? What does the Apostle say? Carry the burdens of one another, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:2). Christ’s law is charity, and charity is not fulfilled unless we carry the burdens of one another. Bear each other with love, the Apostle adds, and study preserving the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace (Eph 4:2-3). When you were infirm you were brought by your neighbour; now that you are healed, you must be the one who brings your neighbour: Carry the burdens of one another, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ. That’s how, O man, you’re going to complete what you missed. So take your lettuce. And when you get it, don’t stop, walk! By loving others and caring about him, you will walk. What path will you take, if not the one that leads to the Lord God, to the one whom we must love with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our minds? We have not yet arrived at the Lord, but our neighbour always has him with us. Therefore, bring the one with whom you walk, to reach the One with whom you wish to remain forever. Take your lettuce and walk.
10. So did that, and the Jews were shocked. They saw a man bring his bed on a Saturday and dared not take it up with the Lord who had healed him on a Saturday, because they feared that he would answer: Which of you, if a mare falls into the well, does not take him out on a Saturday, and does not save him? (cf. Lk 14,5). So they didn’t blame him for healing a man on a Saturday, but they made an observation to that man because he was wearing his bed. Assuming that healing should not be postponed, was it permissible to give that order? So they said, “You can’t do what you do, take away your lettuce. And that appealing to the author of his healing: Who healed me, said to me: Take your bed and walk. Could I not accept an order from whom I had received the healing? And those: Who is that man who said to you: Take your bed and walk? (Jn 5:10-12).
11. The healed did not know who was the man who gave him that order. Jesus, in fact – after having performed the miracle and given order – had disappeared into the crowd (Jn 5:13). Notice this detail. We carry our neighbour and walk towards God; and in the same way that we do not yet see him towards whom we walk, so that he did not yet know Jesus. It is a mystery that is suggested to us: we believe in the One we do not yet see, and he, in order not to be seen, disappears into the crowd. It’s hard to see Christ in the crowd. Our soul needs solitude. In solitude, if the soul is attentive, God lets himself be seen. The crowd is boisterous: silence is needed to see God. Take your lettuce, bring your neighbor, from whom you have been brought; and walks, to reach God. Do not look for Jesus in the crowd, because he is not one of the crowd: he preceded the crowd in every way. That great Fish rose first from the sea, and sits in heaven to intercede for us: he alone, as a great priest, has penetrated into the Saint of Saints beyond the veil, while the crowd remains outside. Walk, you who bring the next; as long as he learned to bring it, you who were used to getting carried away. In short, you still do not know Jesus, you still do not see Jesus; but listen to what follows. Since he did not abandon his lettuce and continued to walk, shortly afterwards Jesus met him in the temple. He had not met him in the crowd, he met him in the temple. The Lord Jesus saw him both in the crowd and in the temple; the sick did not recognize Jesus in the crowd, but only in the temple. That, therefore, reached the Lord: he met him in the temple, in the sacred place, in the holy place. And what did he hear? Behold, you are healed; no more sin, so that no worse happens to you (Jn 5:14).
12. Then that man, after he had seen Jesus and knew that he was the author of his healing, without delay ran to announce who he had seen: he went to tell the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him (Jn 5:15). That announcement filled them with fury: he proclaimed his salvation, but they did not seek their own.
The Mystery of Saturday
13. The Jews persecuted Jesus, because he did these things on a Saturday. Let us hear what the Lord responds to the Jews. I have already told you what he used to say about saturday’s healings: that they did not let their animals perish on a Saturday, raising them if they fell or feeding them. What do you say about saturday’s bed? In the eyes of the Jews it certainly appeared a corporal work, not the healing of the body, but the activity of the body, all the more so since this did not seem as necessary as healing. May the Lord reveal to us, therefore, the mystery of Saturday and the meaning of observance of that day of rest temporarily prescribed to the Jews, and teach us how this mystery has found its fulfilment in him. My Father, he says, continues to act and I too act (Jn 5:16-17). It caused a great uproar among them: the water is stirred by the lord’s coming, but the one who agitates it remains hidden. However, for the agitation of water, that is, for the passion of the Lord, the whole world, like one great sick, obtains healing.
14. Let us therefore see the answer of the Truth: my Father continues to act and I too act. So is it not true what Scripture says, that God rested in the seventh day from all his works (Gn 2:2)? And the Lord would contradict this Scripture, due to Moses, when he himself says to the Jews: If you believed Moses, you would believe me too; indeed he wrote of me (Jn 5:46)? Let us see, therefore, whether the words of Moses: on the seventh day God rested, have no other meaning. God had not ceased to work suspending the work of creation, nor did he need rest like man. How could he who had done everything by word tire? However, it is true that on the seventh day God rested, and it is equally true what Jesus says: my Father continues to act. But how can a man explain this mystery to other men like him, weak as he is, like him ignorant and eager to learn? And assuming that a man has understood something, how can he express it and explain it to those who so difficult to understand even when you can express what you understand? Who will be able, o my brothers, to explain in words how God can work without fatigue and rest while continuing to work? Wait, please, to have made further progress in the way of God. To see this you must have arrived in the temple of God, in the holy place. Load up on your neighbor and walk. You will come to see God where you will no longer need human words.
15. I think it can be said, rather, that God’s rest on the seventh day was a great mysterious sign of the Lord and Saviour of ours Jesus Christ himself, who declared: My Father continues to act, and I too act. The Lord Jesus is Also God. He is the Word of God, and you have heard that in the beginning he was the Word; and not just any verb, but the Word was God, and all things were done through him (Jn 1:1.3). Here perhaps there is the meaning of God’s rest from all his works on the seventh day. In fact, read the Gospel and you will see how many wonderful things Jesus has accomplished. He worked on the cross our salvation, so that all the oracles of the prophets may be fulfilled in him; it was crowned with thorns, it was hung on the cross; he said: I thirsty (Jn 19:28), and took the vinegar of which the sponge was soaked, so that the prophecy might be fulfilled: In my thirst they watered me with vinegar (Ps 68:22). But when all his works were accomplished, on the sixth day, he reclining his head and made the spirit, and on Saturday he rested in the tomb from all his labors. So it’s like he says to the Jews: Why do you expect me not to operate on a Saturday? The Law of Saturday was given to you in reference to me. Turn your attention to God’s works: I was present when they were carried out and all were carried out through me. I know that my Father continues to act. The Father created light; he said: Let the light be made (Gn 1:3); but, if he said, it means that he operated through the Word. And I was, I am his Word; through me through those works the world was created, and through me through these works the world is governed. My Father then worked, when he created the world, and still works now governing the world. By creating he created through me, governing rule through me. This said the Lord, but to whom? To the deaf, to the blind, to the lame, to the sick who did not want to know about the doctor, and in their madness they wanted to kill him.
16. Continuing the Evangelist says: For this reason, all the more so, the Jews wanted to kill him, because he not only violated the Sn. but called God his own Father. And he did not call God his father in a generic sense, but in a precise and unique sense: making himself equal to God (Jn 5:18). In fact we too say to God: Our Father that you are in heaven (Mt 6:9); from Scripture we also know that the Jews said to God: You are our father (Is 63:16; 64, 8). They did not react because he called God his father in this sense, but because he called him his father in a completely different sense from what men call him. The Jews have understood what the Aryans do not understand. The Aryans say that the Son is not equal to the Father, and hence the heresy that afflicts the Church. Behold, the same blind people, the same who came to kill Christ, understood the meaning of Christ’s words. They did not understand that he was the Christ, much less that he was the Son of God, and yet they understood that with those words he presented himself as the Son of God, equal to God. They didn’t know who he was, but they realized that he presented himself as the Son of God, because he called God his father, making himself equal to God. But maybe he wasn’t equal to God? It was not he who made himself equal to God, but it was God who had generated him equal to himself. If on his own initiative he had made himself equal to God, such usurpation would have made him fall into disgrace of God. He, in fact, who claimed to be equal to God, without being one, fell out of favor (Cfr. Is 14: 14-15), and as an angel he became the devil, and promised man the poison of pride for which he was driven out of heaven. In fact, what did he suggest to the man, who envied why he had stood while he had fallen? Taste the fruit, and you will become like gods (Gn 3:5); that is, take with fraud what you are not, as I did that, having tried to usurp the divine nature, I was driven out. That was not exactly the case, but that was the content of his temptation. Christ, on the other hand, had not become, but was born equal to the Father: it was generated by the same substance as the Father, as the Apostle reminds us: He, despite being of the same form of God, did not consider being equal to God to be an usurpation. What do you mean, he didn’t consider an usurpation? It means that he did not usurp his equality with God, for he possessed it from birth. And how can we reach him who is equal to God? He annihilated himself by taking the form of a servant (Phil 2:6-7). He annihilated himself, not losing what he was, assuming what he was not. The Jews, despising this form of servant, were incapable of understanding that Christ the Lord was equal to the Father, although they could not doubt that this of himself he affirmed: indeed for this reason they persecuted him. Jesus, however, endured them and tried to heal those who were fighting against him.