Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus by Johann Heinrich Stöver, 1861
Most parishes have a few parishioners who are blind or deaf to some degree. I sometimes wonder how they feel about biblical references to such handicaps. Blindness is often used in scripture as an image for those who refuse to believe. Similarly, those who will not listen to the message of God are said to be deaf. And as for Jesus' injunction that if our eye offends us, we should pluck it out - well, that might sound rather different to those who have serious eye problems. Campaigners for the disabled have made us rightly aware of how our attitudes towards the disabled can be imprisoning for them. So today we feel uncomfortable sometimes about the way scripture uses disability. And yet, we need to move beyond notions of political correctness to grasp the deeper meaning of scripture.
Often, in the Bible, the message is that those who are inwardly closed off cannot see God's will or hear God's message. These people can 'see' and 'hear' in the normal way, but are impervious to God. By contrast, the disabled, despite their difficulties, often prove to be the most open to Christ. It is the blind beggar Bartimaeus who becomes a follower of Jesus (Mark 10.46-52). He might have been blind, but it was only he who recognised Jesus as the Messiah, calling on him as Son of David (a messianic title).
Disability is treated in different ways in scripture: sometimes it is even seen as a punishment for the person concerned. Yet the Christian witness, as we see in the gospel, is that the disabled, too, can hear and respond to God's message to us in Christ. In fact, the disabled, despite their disabilities, often prove to be the most open to Christ. The 'able-bodied' by contrast are often impervious. What is it that makes them reluctant to be open to God? Pride, perhaps. A belief that we do not need others, ie a dangerous self-sufficiency. Hardness of heart. Coldness. Aloofness. Those who are disabled know their need of God and of others, and often have a great openness. Ironically, it is often those who believe that they have no handicap who turn out to be the most disabled of all. We see one aspect of this in our world’s willingness to make sure that children with disabilities are aborted. Sometimes even disabilities that can be treated. I wonder how the disabled feel when they hear that someone like them could now be detected in the womb through screening, and the pregnancy terminated.
One last thought. The crowd turn on Bartimaeus and tell him to shut up. But he shouts all the louder. This is what the disabled are doing more and more in our society. They will make their voice heard, so that we in our turn will make provision for them to take the place among us that is their right, no longer out of sight and out of mind.
Fr Terry Tastard is Parish Priest of St Mary's, East Finchley, in north London.