I wrote the below over 15 years ago, and sad to say, still see the relevance in today’s church (Catholic). I know they are trying, but too full of fear to throw caution to the wind and have faith in the Gospel they profess.
As I studied and meditated on persons with disabilities in the Gospels; I was intrigued at how Jesus was aware of the difference between persons who were ill (fevers, flu, dying, etc.); persons with physical disabilities (blind, deaf, palsied, leprosy, etc.); and persons with mental or emotional disabilities. Each of these categories of disabilities were treated in a different style, yet each person was treated on an individual basis according to their needs and desires. (Note: there are occasions in which crowds of people brought everyone in need; but when Jesus interacted individually with them there are some distinct patterns.)
The emphasis of this article will be on persons with physical disabilities since these are the people with which I’m most familiar. I will also first briefly explain Jesus’ interaction with persons who are ill or emotionally/mentally disabled.
First, persons who were ill; (example: Peter’s mother-in-law, the centurion’s servant.) Jesus either went to their bed side; or, when told about them, healed them from a distance. The key is that they were not physically brought to Him, nor did they go out to Him — He came to them either by a physical or spiritual presence. Healing was private with only family members present.
Second, persons with cognitive or mental disabilities (people with C/M) in those days were considered to be “possessed by demons”. I personally believe there are true demonic possessions, but people in those days probably had a mental disability rather than actually “possessed”. One could theoretically have/be both, but this would be a coincidence rather than a cause and effect. One thing that is clear, is how Jesus treated people with C/M disabilities. He spoke in a clear and concise manner (not mean or rude); firm, but with love. He said the way to treat people with this type of disability is with prayer and fasting. Why, one might ask? Prayer and fasting takes much discipline and anyone who has a family member who has this type of disability, knows how much discipline is called for in order to appropriately interact with these love ones. This causes one to wonder; who did Jesus intend to help by this discipline of prayer and fasting? Just maybe because the people who disciplined themselves by means of prayer and fasting, saw people with mental or emotional disabilities in a new light, and therefore treated them with respect and love.
This in turn may have had a calming effect on the person with C/M disabilities. It has been proven, in most cases, if you treat people with C/M with respect, you will get a far better response from them — and trust me, they can sense a person’s genuine respect; rather than someone who’s just using the pretense of respect to elicit a positive response. Maybe that’s why the disciples could not heal that “possessed” boy (Mt. 17; 14-21) — they showed him no respect for his personhood.
The key here is Jesus how Jesus came in contact with individuals having this type of disability in that, Jesus was either told about these individuals, or he stumbled upon them accidently in his everyday ministry — these people were not able to get to him, or even ask Him to heal them on their own. Persons with these disabilities caused a disturbance either in their community or to family members. Jesus taught those around them discipline; and when they disciplined their own behavior, and attitudes towards persons with emotional/mental disabilities, people with C/M were affected by it.
I love the way Jesus interacts with persons with physical disabilities. Most of the time people with physical disabilities would seek Jesus out for healing. When they finally get his attention (e.g. coming through the roof, or yelling out to Him while everyone around is trying to shut them up); Jesus does not take it upon Himself to assess their physical needs; instead He asks; “What do you want from me?”
Sometimes Jesus sees their spiritual need is greater than their need for physical healing and he forgives their sins. Every time I read about the paralytic at Capernaum, I laugh! His friends carry this man on a mat for maybe miles. They have to somehow get him up on the roof (I can picture my friends getting me up on top of Seagate!); lower him through the roof right in front of Jesus and all Jesus says is; “Your sins are forgiven!” In those days there was an uproar because no one had the power to forgive sins — today there would be an uproar because the man had been lying on a mat for 32 years; people would wonder; what sin could he possibly commit? We have gone from the extreme of thinking the man was disabled because he has sinned, to thinking; this man could not have possibly sinned because he is disabled. Jesus says; “This man has sinned because he’s human and his heart wandered away from God.”
Another major point is; unless Jesus had to do something like spittle in the mouth or put mud on the eyes; he always healed persons with physical disabilities within the community. In fact, the “unclean” (the lepers and the woman with a hemorrhage) who were forbidden to be in the community, Jesus purposely drew them into the community and pointed them out and then healed them. He physically touched them on purpose I believe, to show how touching someone can make them “clean”; rather than making the person touching them “unclean”. The “touch” itself did not make the person “clean” or “whole”, but it was the genuine love and acceptance with which he touched them that accomplished these things.
Maybe the community started to see the real gifts these people brought to the community instead of seeing the “burdens” they presented. Maybe when persons with physical disabilities were included, supported, and uplifted by community members — they become productive members of the community. Which would be the greater healing? Taking away a person’s physical limitations? Or, enabling the community to see past the outer person to see what was on the inside? This is why Jesus seldom took the initiative to heal the person’s physical disability right off the bat — Jesus did not notice that a person could not physically see; so He had to ask; “What do you want?” Jesus did not see that the man was all deformed on a mat for 32 years — He saw that the sinfulness inside this man was what was deforming and binding him on the inside; so He set the guy free. Jesus noticed everyone else was still caught-up in his physical problems so to prove His authority to heal the inside, He healed the outside too.
Jesus would not have noticed the physical disabilities of the man with the shriveled hand, or the man born blind; if the community had not been so acutely aware of them first. It may have seemed Jesus was insensitive because he did not ask them what they wanted, but it seems that these two people didn’t want anything; the community wanted something from Jesus, so Jesus “used” them for the glory of God. Jesus can “use” anyone — in the positive sense of the word “use”.
I could write a book about this, but for now I need to state what this means in today’s church. We hear a lot today about “inclusiveness”. Well, that idea is 2000 years old and we’re far from being “inclusive” to the extent Jesus was.
Who are the “outcasts” today? We have people who are blind, deaf, or amputees etc. who are readers, Eucharistic ministers, pastoral leaders, etc. We have persons with aids and other people with various hidden disabilities (arthritis, diabetes) working and accepted in all aspects of church ministry. The true “outcasts” are those with Down’s Syndrome, intellectual disabilities, schizophrenia, severe emotional disabilities, severe multiple sclerosis, severe cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, alcoholism, total quadriplegia, and those in nursing homes. These people our allowed in the church to sit for Mass (usually in an assigned area — but it’s not mandatory), but that’s as far as they’re allowed to participate. These people can forget religious life, the priesthood, or the deaconate because they are totally unacceptable candidates. Even as greeters, pastors are afraid most of these types of disabilities would be “offensive” to the congregation.
The key here is; Jesus knew that persons with physical disabilities would truly be healed when the community accepts them as people and brought out the giftedness in each person. When this happens, Jesus knew that a person’s limitations would not be noticed by community members and therefore the person would be free.
Jesus saw inside a person and this is what he was concerned with — as we should be. He treated the person according to what was on the inside and sometimes He found some mighty sinful persons who happen to have physical disabilities (although the two are not necessarily connected).
Of course persons with disabilities have to have a genuine “call” to a particular ministry and should not be placed as “tokens”. This is why Jesus looked inside; to see in the heart. If a person with a disability has a heart of a beggar; then that’s what they are. Or, if they have the heart of a missionary; we should enable them to be that. This is what Jesus did.
In conclusion; we as a church, need to go out of our way to fully accept all persons with various disabilities in all aspects of ministry. We have the ideal of “inclusiveness” on paper, but we our far from implementing it with those who are truly “outcasts”. We can no longer hind behind a lector who is blind and say; “See, we are inclusive”; for this is socially acceptable now. (This does not mean that people who are blind and deaf still don’t suffer from some “exclusion” — they do; but not to the extent persons with severe disabilities do.) When a person with Down’s syndrome becomes a Eucharistic minister; then we will be inclusive. When a man with severe cerebral palsy is ordained a priest; then we will be inclusive.
(Personal note: I am truly thankful that in my life I have met many people of who have befriended me and have included me in their lives.
Once when I was frustrated with having to struggle for everything, I asked The Lord; “Name me one thing that’s ever come easy for me?” He answered clearly; “You’ve always made friends easy”. I realized, with my severe disability, how truly blessed I am to have this gift.)