The Student’s Desk

That we may know Christ

A Theological Approach to Relating to People with Disabilities

This paper was presented at the “Men Meeting the Challenge Conference 2011” 3rd September, organised by “Men for Christ Ministries”.

 

The Bible does not have a simple category for people with disabilities. It does not address the issue of disabilities directly. However the Bible does recognize disadvantaged people groups. These included the poor, the sojourner, the fatherless and the widowed. These were people that were at a social and economic disadvantage in the community of Israel. So it seems appropriate to also include disability among these disadvantaged groups; and by looking at how God approached the issue of disadvantaged people we can also see how He approaches the issue of disability.

 

In Leviticus 19:9-10 (23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19-21) the Bible speaks of these disadvantaged people and the provision that they were to enjoy. Scripture stipulated that food crops on the edge of fields, and any crops that were dropped or left behind in the process of harvesting, were to be left for disadvantaged groups. In this we recognize that being disadvantaged was not punishment from God. Nor were people who were disadvantaged to be treated like second classes citizens. They were recognized as members of the community. Note also, this provision was not a hand out. This provision did not allow these disadvantaged groups to sit around all day and do nothing. In order to eat, and provide for their family, they were to be involved with the on-goings of the surrounding community and they were to be responsible for their actions.

For our purposes of relating to people with disabilities, it is more then simply providing for immediate needs. There is a social dynamic that needs to be considered. That is, enabling the person to exercise their God-given abilities, as small as they may be, to become an active member within their community.

 

We see a similar approach in the ministry of Jesus. Through the gospels people are reconciled not only with God, but with other people. And how people are reconciled to other people reflects how they are reconciled to God. We see this in the way Jesus engages with people. In Matthew 20:29-34 we read how Jesus was going to Jericho when he met two blind men. And in this encounter we find Jesus asking the question ‘what do you want me to do for you?’ Now us modern, task orientated people, we read that and we might think, “Get with the program, Jesus!” It’s pretty obvious what these blind men want. They want their sights restored. So why doesn’t Jesus just heal them? Why does Jesus put the question when the answer is so obvious?

The answer to this is quite simple. This is possibly the first time in their lives that these two men have been treated like human beings. The culture tells a lot about the attitudes towards people with disabilities at the time. We know that from a well of information that such people were considered to be a blemish on the fabric of the holy society and it’s little wonder that the crowd told them to “shut up”. It was an embarrassing thing for a great teacher to be pestered by two blind men. Being pestered by two men who obviously been rejected by God because of their blindness!

So I want you to notice the gravity of what is happening here. It could be the first time that someone is placing themselves at the disposal of these two blind men. And it’s not just anyone who involves themselves to these two men. Matthew describes Jesus as the One who is faithful to God. So the one who is faithful to God is making himself available to people who are perceived as not faithful to God. For Jesus, it wasn’t simply a matter of enabling these two blind men to see, but to engage with them personally. And this was a restoration of their humanity as well.

 

Again we find the same thing happening in Luke 8:40-48 where we have a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years. Now this is a woman of no status in the community. And she had no right to be in a place where she could access Jesus and touch him. All this woman wanted to do was get in, get healed, and get back out undetected. But Jesus concern goes beyond this woman’s physical needs. We find Jesus asking what seems like another ridiculous question, ‘Who was it that touched me?’ Now, if I was in the crowd and I heard that, I would have been rolling on the ground laughing! It is just a ridiculous thing to ask. There were people pushing and shoving Jesus in every direction. The scene of one of chaos, and out of all this chaos Jesus wants to know who touched him? It’s a ridiculous question. So why does Jesus ask the question? Again it’s about this personal interaction. It wasn’t enough for this woman to be healed of her bleeding. She needed her humanity restored. Someone unfit to be called a daughter of Israel, Jesus calls His daughter. She is restored into a relationship with Jesus. She becomes a daughter of The King! It’s more than having needs met.

 

Again in John 5 we find Jesus encountering yet another person with a disability. And again Jesus asked the man a pretty obvious question, “Do you want to be healed?’. But the question asked brings something out of the man’s character. That he doesn’t only need healing on the outside. He actually needs healing on the inside, and this is Jesus’ real concern.  Jesus heals the man and he is well. But what he says towards the end of this account is interesting. Jesus says to him, “Sin no more that nothing worse may happened to you.” What’s he  talking about? Is he talking about sinless perfection on earth? No he is talking about entering a right relationship with Him. You see, right through the account this man has been denying Jesus. His body might be healed. His physical needs may be met, and he is walking. But he is not right with God. Jesus is concerned with seeing him right with God. And when he says ‘so nothing worse may happen to you’ Jesus is not talking about a disability. He is talking about Hell. Jesus ultimate concern for this man is that he becomes right with God. It’s more than physical. It is more than having immediate needs met. It’s relational.

 

I’ve only picked out a few examples of how Jesus interacts with disadvantage people. If we read the gospels, we find again and again, it’s more than physical, and it’s more than immediate needs. It’s personal, and it’s eternal. If we are going to minister the gospel to people with disabilities, it needs not only to be physical. It also needs to be personal, and it needs to be eternal.

 

Well, how does this work in the church? In 1 Corinthians 12:22 Paul writes this, ‘On the contrary the parts from the body that seem weaker are indispensable and those parts of the body that we think are less honorable we bestowed greater honour. Our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty”. What does that mean? It is difficult to understand this verse in English mainly because it is difficult to understand this verse in the original Greek. And different commentators have different ideas of what Paul is on about, and I’m not entirely convinced. What I am convinced of is Paul’s vision for the church at Corinth was for each of the member of the church to serve other members so they can serve. The background that Paul was writing to was one where people were showing off so they can better themselves against other people. To this Paul says ‘no!’ Instead of showing off, use your abilities to help someone else use their abilities.

So I take it in the modern context, if someone is unable to contribute to the church, I do what it takes so they can contribute to the church. This may take more time, more effort, and even more resource. This can go against our task orientated culture but we need to stop and ask what are we trying to do? Are we trying to run programs? Or are we trying to build relationships? It may not be the quickest way of doing something. It might not be the most expedient way. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are building those relationships and we are building people up, presenting them mature in Christ (Colossians 1:28).

 

By way of conclusion, I hope we can see that: firstly the relationships that we have with people with disabilities needs to be based on the relationship that God has with us – a relationship of reconciliation. And secondly I hope we can see that relating to people with disabilities is much, much more than just providing a service. It is about building relationships, serving people in the context of a relationship. Not a relationship in the context of their needs.

 

© The Student’s Desk, September 2011

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September 2, 2011 - Posted by | Bible, Biblical Theology, Essays, Religious, Talks | , , , , , , , , ,

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