This is part of our blog series on Disability and Youth Ministry. To read other posts from this series, visit this page.
In John 9, Jesus and his disciples encounter a man blind from birth. “Who sinned,” the disciples ask, “this man or his parents that he was born blind?” They present Jesus with two options. Jesus takes a third. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” he replies. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
Until recently this exchange, and the healing and controversy narratives that follow, never gave me much pause. Then I became the parent of a child with disabilities.
Five years ago my son, Owen, was born with a rare constellation of physical anomalies and has since been diagnosed with epilepsy and cerebral palsy. He is not able to walk, stand, eat, read, or talk on his own, but he is teaching me how to read the Bible. Owen is revealing God’s works to me.
If the main issue were simply the man’s physical blindness the story could have started in verse 6 and ended in 7. However, the query of the disciples in 9:1-5 and the interrogation of the crowds, the man’s parents, and the religious leaders in the remainder of the chapter reminds the reader that the blind man is part of a community, and it is the community’s inadequate response to him and to Jesus that disables both the blind man and those around him.
My son is not blind, but as a parent of a child with disabilities, it is no longer possible for me to read John 9 without feeling nettled, even angered, by the disciples’ misguided theology that would permit them to see the blind man only as a puzzle to be solved instead of a person to be embraced. In fact, according to the text, only Jesus is said to “see” the blind man at all (9:1). For the disciples, the man’s presence only represents a theological conundrum. Seeing they do not see.
I have been a student of scripture for years, but Owen has challenged much of what I thought I knew, overturning many of my interpretive tables. Like Jesus does with his disciples in John 9, my experience of raising Owen has exposed and subverted many of my unexamined presuppositions and prejudices and is opening me up to more liberatory and inclusive readings of the Bible that are good news for everyone, regardless of their abilities. Although I could see Scripture before, Jesus has used Owen to open my eyes wider to the Bible’s good news.
What does it look like to read the Bible with a greater awareness and sensitivity to the experience of disabilities? How should the reality of disabilities shape our interpretive approach to the Bible – our “hermeneutic”?
In his book, The Bible, Disability, and the Church, theologian Amos Yong argues that a “Disability Hermeneutic” entails three basic convictions: First, “People with disabilities are created in the image of God that is measured according to the person of Christ.” Second, “People with disabilities are people first who shouldn’t be defined solely by their disabilities.” Third, “Disabilities are not necessarily evil or blemishes to be eliminated.”1
How might these commitments inform the way we read and teach the Bible?
Let’s return to John 9. On the surface, what we find here is a simple healing story. Jesus encounters a blind man and cures him. But the conversation with the disciples before the healing and the controversy with the Pharisees that ensues reveal something deeper at work. There is more to the story than meets the eye.
Disabilities are not necessarily evil or blemishes to be eliminated
For one thing, Jesus severs any simplistic link between disability and personal sin. Both with his disciples and with the Pharisees, Jesus insists that the man’s blindness was not the result of either his or his parents’ sin. Instead, what is sinful, according to Jesus, is the hubris of those who claim to see spiritually, yet fail to notice the places where God is at work, often where the world least expects it. “If you were blind, you would not have sin,” Jesus says to the Pharisees, “But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (9:41). Despite the fact that Jesus restores the sight of the blind man, the real healing involves far more than the blind man’s eyes. Jesus wants to illuminate a greater darkness.
People with disabilities are people first, and are not solely defined by disability
Jesus isn’t just interested in curing a blind man, he wants to shine a light on the social dynamic that disables the community from really seeing this man and heeding his testimony. If the main issue were simply the man’s physical blindness the story could have started in verse 6 and ended in 7. However, the query of the disciples in 9:1-5 and the interrogation of the crowds, the man’s parents, and the religious leaders in the remainder of the chapter reminds the reader that the blind man is part of a community, and it is the community’s inadequate response to him and to Jesus that disables both the blind man and those around him.
What is most eye opening in this chapter is not the restoration of a blind man’s physical sight, but the spiritual vision that this man attains in contrast to the obstinacy and hatred of a community that ultimately drives him away (9:34). Here, the social dynamics of disability are on full display. Although some may still cringe at the way this passage and many others in the Bible employ the language of disability (such as “blindness” and “deafness”) to describe negative spiritual conditions, we should not overlook the significant ways in which such language also serves to subvert their “normal” culturally-conditioned associations. Such a subversion occurs, for instance, in 1 John 2:11: “Whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because darkness has brought on blindness.” The passage utilizes “blindness” as a descriptor for a negative spiritual condition, but at the same time fundamentally reinterprets blindness not as an inability to see but as a failure to love. It is this failure to love that a disability hermeneutic highlights time and again, helping “abled” and “disabled” alike to read the Bible afresh as a call to radical hospitality and vulnerable communion.2
People with disabilities are created in the image of God
One final point to emphasize. John 9 might leave the impression that God is only glorified in the overcoming of disabilities, rather than their inclusion. After all, the blind man receives his sight, so doesn’t it logically follow that disabilities are blemishes that God intends to fix, if not now, at least in the end? This question is too complex to address here in full, so I simply offer a few points to ponder. To the extent that disabilities involve pain and suffering, I believe the Bible foresees a time when such trials will end. “The Lord will wipe the tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8; Revelation 21:4). But, the hardships associated with one’s physical/mental/intellectual impairments are often rooted as much in the exclusions and barriers erected by society as they are in one’s own body. Thus, eschatological healing involves far more than the curing of individual ailments, but (perhaps more profoundly) the overthrow of an entire system of cultural norms, expectations, and ideals that presently disables those who are different. The heavenly healing the Bible envisions is not that “they” will become more like “us,” but that all of us will become more like Christ, whose own resurrected body, far from being free from blemishes, still retains the marks of his wounds (John 20:24-29).
In like fashion, the body of Christ today – the church – by including, embracing, learning from and serving with those society labels as “blemished,” embodies the paradoxical power of its crucified Lord.
1. Amos Yong, The Bible, Disability, and the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 13.
2. The phrase “vulnerable communion” borrows from Thomas E. Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008).
Joel Estes is a PhD candidate (ABD) in New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary and Assistant Ministry Director at Grace Presbyterian Church in Titusville, NJ. In his scholarship and teaching, Joel aspires to connect the academy, the church, and the world through holistic theological education that engages heart, soul, mind, and strength. As the parent of a child with disabilities, Joel is frequently invited to speak on the topic of disabilities, theology, and the church. Joel lives in Princeton with his wife and four children (two boys and twin girls, all under the age of 6). He sleeps less than he should.