By Mike Ivaska
29 And as they went out of Jericho, a great crowd followed him. 30 And behold, there were two blind men sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was passing by, they cried out, “Lord,[e] have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd rebuked them, telling them to be silent, but they cried out all the more, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 32 And stopping, Jesus called them and said, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 And Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him. – Matthew 20:29-34
16 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “Speak to Aaron, saying, None of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the bread of his God. 18 For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, 19 or a man who has an injured foot or an injured hand, 20 or a hunchback or a dwarf or a man with a defect in his sight or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. 21 No man of the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s food offerings; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God. 22 He may eat the bread of his God, both of the most holy and of the holy things, 23 but he shall not go through the veil or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries, for I am the Lord who sanctifies them.” 24 So Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons and to all the people of Israel. – Leviticus 21:16-24
Who has believed what he has heard from us?[a]
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected[b] by men;
a man of sorrows,[c] and acquainted with[d] grief;[e]
and as one from whom men hide their faces[f]
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:1-5
15 When one of those who reclined at table with him heard these things, he said to him, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16 But he said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. 17 And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant[c] to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ 19 And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ 20 And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ – Luke 14:15-21
[I hope you read, and did not just skim, the above passages. If you skimmed them, take a moment to read them through slowly and carefully. They are as much a part of this post as anything below]
One of the most important things I learned in my class on Disability in Society and the Church was the social dimension of Jesus’ healing miracles. It is well known that Jesus, and his disciples after him, performed many miracles which relieved people of conditions that our modern society would term “disabilities” – blindness, deafness, paraplegia (the “lame” or crippled), and so on. What I had never really stopped to consider was the social aspect of these disabilities.
People who are unused to being around persons with physical or intellectual disabilities almost always become very uncomfortable around them. This can be interpreted as unkindness, but that is not always the case. Everyone naturally struggles with “difference.” Children in particular do not always know what to do with people who look or act very differently, and often ask questions which adults consider rude. In social situations, children (and adults) can become very cruel and exclusionary towards persons with disabilities. Historically, people with intellectual disabilities (such as Down Syndrome) were often quite literally considered subhuman, perhaps even soulless. Physical disabilities were at worst considered judgments from God, or at best considered obstacles for the disabled person to “overcome” in some heroic way. Many ancient, communal cultures had better ways of incorporating people with different abilities and limitations into the fabric of society, but western culture medieval and modern has generally not known what to do with such people.
This situation is compounded by the biblical metaphors of blindness, deafness, and the like to symbolize sin. Perhaps the most painful text for a person with a disability is the above passage from Leviticus, where any disabled person from the priestly line was forbidden to take part in the priestly duties given to their family. Such persons were allowed to partake of the meals that followed the sacrifices, but were forbidden from taking part in the rituals themselves. To do so would have been to defile God’s sanctuary. One has to stop and put oneself in a disabled person’s shoes for a moment to appreciate how harsh this text seems.
In this setting, we need to realize how the Old Testament law worked. Its ultimate goal was to guide the nation of Israel in realizing its need for, and inability to earn, God’s grace and help. When Jesus came, it was those who appeared to be the closest to “measuring up” to the Law of Moses that found themselves the furthest from God’s favor. It was the outcasts and the untouchables that found themselves eating with Jesus. In fact, Jesus himself became an outcast by associating with those deemed “unfit” in the eyes of the Law and of society. This culminated in his death on the cross as a blasphemer and sinner, where he received scars that he will carry on his resurrected body for all eternity. Jesus gathered those deemed “outsiders” to himself and became the ultimate “outsider” on their behalf by suffering the Father’s rejection on the cross. In this way, the “insiders” became “outsiders” and the “outsiders” became “insiders.”
It is in this connection that Jesus’ healings take on new meaning. Though Jesus welcomed outsiders to himself, those with physical disabilities would have been outsiders even to the outsiders. They would have been considered truly cursed of God, particularly if they were born with their disability (see John 9:1-2). They also would have been unable to care for themselves and would have been a burden, not an asset, to their parents. Thus, Jesus’ healings had a radically social dimension. If the blind were outsiders even to the outsiders, then taking away their blindness takes away their stigma. They can now be insiders, welcomed members of the messianic community.
As Pentecostal Christians, we believe that God heals. But we also know that our God is a mysterious God, a wise God, who does not jump when we say “jump!” Sometimes God does not heal. Sometimes he has other plans. When it comes to persons with disabilities, perhaps what God wants to do is not heal them but heal us. If healing is a sign of the coming kingdom, so is a welcoming and loving community. It may even surprise many of us without disabilities (yet!) that many people with disabilities do not desire to be cured of their disability. They like who they are, and see no reason to be someone else. But if they enter our churches, and all we focus on is their disability and keep trying to “heal” them, we miss out on the most radical dimension of Jesus ministry: love. Jesus’ love took people who were not a community and made them a community. He took outsiders and made them insiders. He took sinners and made them saints.
Perhaps what Jesus wants to do is not heal our neighbors’ disabilities (yet). Perhaps he wants to heal our sinful hearts that struggle to accept people not like us and welcome them in his name.