In Praying for Healing of Disabilities, Part 1, I set up some general thoughts about disabilities, shame, and identity. In Part 2, I want to build on those ideas as we consider Jesus’s ministry, particularly the healing of persons with disabilities.
Keep in mind: I’m not a person with disabilities. This is my starting point, and I’m guessing my thoughts will change as I continue to talk with folks who do have disabilities and to learn more about theologies that de-center ableism.
I recognize that Eastern and Near Eastern concepts of shame/honor may differ from Western concepts. If nothing else, there’s a much heavier emphasis on individuality in Western cultures, particularly in America, whereas many Eastern cultures emphasize communities over individuals. I’m guessing the difference leads to shame manifesting differently, but I still want to try to imagine what it might be like to experience communal shame in Jesus’s day. Consider the beginning of this story in John:
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”John 9:1-2, NRSVUE
The disciples have an understanding: disabilities and sin are associated. While I don’t think ancient Israel conceived of “sin” or “disabilities” in the same ways as American Christians, I think it’s safe to say that sin was undesirable (to put it mildly); thus, so were disabilities. The author of Mark also notes this association.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves, and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat, and go to your home.”Mark 2:5-11, NRSVUE
The correlation of disabilities and sin suggests, to me, that whatever shame is associated with sin would also be associated with disabilities, not only for the disabled individual but also for their families and maybe even entire communities. The Old Testament continually emphasizes the communal identity of Israel, particularly surrounding the events of the Exodus. An individual’s shame isn’t merely their own, because their identity isn’t separate from the community’s.
I think this is part of Jesus’s anger toward the religious leaders; they claim the status of “God’s people” or “children of Abraham” — the stewards, recipients, and products of a covenant relationship with God — but they withhold the shame-combatting aspects of justice and mercy. They sacrifice individuals to shame like human scapegoats. They marginalize and disenfranchise people with disabilities in the name of righteousness. Some passages that mention these things:
- John the Baptist: “Therefore, bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Luke 3:8, NRSVUE, emphasis mine)
- Jesus to his adversaries: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in you stop them.” (Matthew 23:13, NRSVUE) And, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” (Matthew 23:23, NRSVUE, emphasis mine)
- Concerning healing on the Sabbath: “They were watching him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him… Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent… The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” (Mark 3:2, 4, and 6, NRSVUE, emphasis mine)
Sacrificing Disabled Persons
The gospel writers give us glimpses into the power hungry systems of Jesus’s day. Much like today, those with authority would carefully maintain the status quo by sacrificing the least desirable in society, including people with disabilities. Luke seems particularly interested in grounding Jesus’s teachings in the messiness of everyday life — poverty, sickness, possession (which, at the very least, parallels what we might diagnose as mental illnesses), systemic oppression, etc. The more we’re able to ground Christian ethics in those messy realities, the more it can challenge those systems.
One way to resist the grounding of Jesus’s teachings in lived realities is for authorities to create undesirable narratives around marginalized groups. This is what I mean when I say they sacrificed people or created scapegoats. Claiming Jesus heals by the power of Beelzebul (Matthew 12:22-32) is a good example of this. If the source of a healing is the Lord of Flies (Beelzebub) or a former heavenly steward or non-YHWH deity (Beelzebul), then the healing, itself, is suspect. While this is an attack aimed directly at Jesus, there’s collateral damage; it twists the narrative of those who are healed, as well.
This is essentially a “guilty by association” scenario. Who should they be praising for their healing? If the healing is the work of Beelzebul, then they should praise Beelzebul, but if they praise Beelzebul, they’ve been tempted away from God. For a people who have no other gods beside the Lord, that’s unacceptable. Anyone healed by Jesus, then, becomes part of a twisted narrative; the original source of their shame (their illness or demon possession) is gone, but it’s just as quickly replaced by a new source of shame: their having been healed by a wicked power.
This happens several times throughout the gospels. Those with authority are willing to sacrifice the marginalized in order to maintain control. The leaders don’t have to deny the healing (although they sometimes try: John 9); they only have to discredit the healer.
All this to point out that there was probably both individual and communal shame around disabilities in Jesus’s day, and because disabilities were associated with sin, I doubt there were any significant ways to be anti-shame concerning disabilities. When it came to chronic skin diseases and mental illness, for example, one likely found oneself outside the physical boundaries of a community. This suggests to me that we need to start with a different question.
Wanting to Be Healed
Did Jesus heal people who didn’t want to be healed?
Considering the way disabilities and sin seem to be intertwined for ancient Israel, I think a more historically honest question would be this:
Was there anyone in Jesus’s day who didn’t want to be healed?
The first question seems like presentism; it assumes that people with disabilities in Roman-occupied, ancient Israel viewed their disabilities the same way as persons view disabilities today. I think the second question asks whether such a view is reasonable.
This isn’t to say that Jesus didn’t care what people wanted. There are many occasions where Jesus asks people what they want instead of immediately healing them. I believe Jesus cared, but it seems to me that the idea of not wanting to be healed isn’t something Jesus had to deal with very often, if at all. In other words, it’s simply not something the New Testament addresses, because it’s a modern issue.
The idea of being content with living with disabilities might exist because we live in a world where living with disabilities is plausible. This is a generalization, but it seems to me that being content with disabilities in a heavily communal, honor/shame society where disabilities and sin were linked would be the exception, not the rule.
Did Jesus encounter anyone with a disability who didn’t want to be healed? I say probably not. What, then, can we say about our present-day question of healing? What can we learn from Jesus’s ministry that might help us consider praying for healing of disabilities, today?
The Gospel Is Anti-Shame
The main thing I take from Jesus’s interactions with the marginalized, particularly in the gospel according to Luke, is that the Gospel is anti-shame. I think this is consistent with Old Testament emphases on the poor, orphans, widows, and foreigners; the realities of their circumstances aren’t supposed to be shameful. Rather, there’s a call to the rest of society to make space for folks who are normally pushed “outside” of what’s considered normative.
John describes the Word of God as incarnating because of God’s love, and Luke presents a ministry that blossoms on the fringes of society. People have to go out of the city gates to encounter John the Baptist, which is where Jesus’s ministry is anointed, and the wilderness (in contrast to the city) is part of Jesus’s journey in all three of the synoptic gospels. Repeatedly, the Gospel is located outside of societal expectations and inside of disenfranchised communities, and I don’t think that can happen if shame is involved.
There’s enough to unpack in that last sentence for another post, so let me try to just touch on it without hijacking this one; a big problem with a lot of Evangelical theology is that it tries to bring people into the fold while maintaining their shamefulness. “You are loved, but you should also be ashamed of yourself.” I think that’s antithetical to the Gospel.
I think part of what Jesus presents to people in the gospels is an opportunity to be healed of their shame. I think that’s what’s beautiful about the story of the paralytic in Matthew 9; he might be one of those rare exceptions. Consider that the blind man’s parents hardly even want to defend him before the council (John 9). The bleeding woman wants to sneak in and sneak out without being noticed (Mark 5). The man at the Sheep Gate had no one to put him in the water to be healed (John 5). Yet, this paralyzed man had friends willing to carry him to Jesus, lift him onto a roof, dig a whole through it, and lower him down. So, Jesus forgives his sin. His friends love him and care for him. They accept him as he is. Perhaps the forgiveness of his sin apart from the healing of his body would make clear to him and his friends that his paralysis isn’t shameful, at all.
Yes, I hear some people saying, “It doesn’t say they’re his friends; maybe they’re bringing him to be healed because they’re ashamed of his disability.” I think my point still holds up. If Jesus forgives his sin without healing him, it separates his disability from his sin. The forgiveness of sin becomes the undoing of the shame of disability, and that’s what I mean when I say the Gospel is anti-shame.
Should We Pray for Healing?
This post is already too long, so I’ll rush this last point: the Gospel is also about being united. Some describe this as community, others relationship, others oneness or unity, etc. God is communal, all things come into being through God, all things hold together in God, and love is manifested in relationship with others. A genuine process of accepting others and journeying with them through life requires being anti-shame, and part of the good news revealed through the Christ is that God is manifesting communities that cast off the shame of the world and embrace one another.
So, should we pray for healing? That’s a question we should be answering about ourselves, not about others. It’s a question we should be allowing others to answer about themselves, because we should be journeying with others through the process of becoming united in the communal love of God. Are they experiencing shame around their disabilities? Why not imagine with them a world, a kingdom, a new creation where that shame is removed? If that looks like healing, pray for that reality to come into being. If that doesn’t look like healing, don’t pray for it. Either way, it’s something that should be decided in relationship with others, not something we decide for everyone and then impose on them; that’s neither communal nor anti-shame.
Did Jesus heal people who didn’t want to be healed? I don’t think so. If such people existed in Jesus’s day, I think they would have been the incredibly rare exception, and I think he would have respected their desires. Would Jesus heal people today who don’t want to be healed? I don’t think so. I think how Jesus heals people is more about journeying with people into freedom from shame — into freedom of love — than about ideal bodily functions. Don’t assume that people have shame about their disabilities, don’t assume they’re imagining a new creation where people look like you, and don’t assume that journeying with them into communal love means changing their bodies. If we want to be like Jesus, maybe we can start with asking what he asked: what do you want?
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