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The Big Question

How did Jesus treat those living with disabilities?

By Paul Reed

I have been effectively blind in my inward-turned right eye since birth. In many ways, I have compensated for it; in other ways, I haven’t and can’t. I have been fooled. Swimming on a still, grey day, with no distinguishable horizon, I swam to recover what I thought was a beer bottle floating nearby only to discover it was a barrel far offshore. I don’t have binocular vision. I judge distance by relative size. I am often asked what that is like, and to explain how my vision differs from what is normal. I can’t answer; this is my normal.

I gave up competitive hockey early. I could follow the puck, but I couldn’t see the opposing player on my right. I learned this lesson hard against the boards, and came to terms with it in the chair of a dental surgeon removing a portion of my upper jaw. I am watchful for dangers on the right, but I will still miss a subtle greeting or wave from that side. This, too, is my normal.

It is my normal, and yet to speak of it can choke me up. I can tell the story of that dental visit 40 years ago and laugh at my wide-eyed horror when the surgeon turned to his assistant and, setting down his hammer, asked for the bigger bone chisel and mallet. That is easy. What chokes me up are the schoolyard memories: the many times I was called “four eyes,” or someone stood in front of me and deliberately crossed their eyes for the laughter of classmates. What I remember is a persistent message that I was less than normal.

I feel for the man (John 9:1-12) who wore the label “sinner” for no other reason than he was born blind; he was labelled and discarded by society because of how he differed from the community’s standards. Before restoring the man’s sight, Jesus told the disciples the man was not a sinner, but made blind so that God’s works could be revealed in him.

Jesus’ compassion is described in many stories about healing the sick, the lame, the deaf and the blind. But the healing he offered always went beyond the physical. He did not condemn the sick and the disabled for their afflictions. Jesus looked beyond the surface and saw a person’s inherent value.

In my early 20s, I received such a gift of healing. While working on a housing project in a northern Ontario First Nations community, I became aware that I was being identified by an expression that, when I asked, was translated as “the one who sees in two directions.” It wasn’t an insult — it was simply a reference to my distinguishing characteristic. After mediating a conflict, I became aware of a subtle difference in the expression that the community members were using, and I inquired again. It was explained to me that I was being called “the one who sees both sides.” My crooked eye wasn’t merely a characteristic; it was being described as a gift. I am not less for what I cannot do, but called worthy for what I can do. It was a subtle difference in sound but a wonderful gift of grace.

What a gift it must have been for that blind man to hear Jesus’ words, “This man is not a sinner,” followed by the affirmation that he was a worthy individual, a creation of God, and in spite of his blindness — indeed because of his blindness — the glory of God could be revealed. Jesus restored his sight, but the more important gift, that of acceptance and worthiness, had already been given.

No one should be labelled, ridiculed, rejected, barred admission or treated as less than worthy for a characteristic that makes them who they are. Each and every person is a creation of God, through whom the glory of God can and may be revealed. Those who refuse to see the gift that lies within are the truly blind.

I recently presided at a memorial service for Marion Stainton. Marion was a founding member of Lupus Ontario and lived much of her life from a wheelchair. She often reminded people, “It is time to realize that a wheelchair is no longer a symbol of disability. It is a symbol of freedom for people who cannot walk.” I think Jesus would have seen the chair as freedom — if he noticed it at all. He would have been focused on the person in it, knowing them, valuing them and making them whole.

Rev. Paul Reed is a minister at Cambridge Street United in Lindsay, Ont.

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