My initial grappling with the text made Jesus seem like a jerk–never a promising start to a sermon.
I mean, who goes to a pool crowded with ill people and heals just ONE?
And who asks “do you want to be made well?” to someone who has obviously been trying his damnedest to do just that for 38 years?
And when Jesus just happens to be hanging out where the man he healed can conveniently point him out to the Pharisees, how can the whole thing not come off as some kind of twisted publicity stunt?
As a person without a disability, I can’t help but wonder how my fellow congregants who live with disabilities or chronic illness receive fraught texts like this one. It’s enough to make me want to avoid these passages altogether.
This time, though, I called up a friend who works in disability rights. He graciously educated me on person-first language and explained why the “medical cure” mindset so often illustrated in the Bible is problematic–it treats disability and illness (and often the person, too) as problems to be fixed, instead of as just one facet of a complex and rich life.
But he wisely left me to wrestle with the theological dilemma of scriptural healings on my own.
So I did, and I decided that the Jesus I know is not a jerk–at least not in the sense of viewing people with disabilities as damaged, unclean abominations needing a magical zap from God to be “normal.” That is how his society saw them, not how he did.
The Jesus I know is the incarnation of God’s fundamental commitment to human dignity, compassion, and agency. If the expression of that commitment in 1st century Palestine looked like “fixing” someone’s disability in a way that meant they could rejoin a society unwilling to include them as they were, today it looks very different—perhaps like the work of modern-day disability rights activists who fight for legal parity and adaptive environments.
There was still the publicity stunt to wrestle with, though. That needed a Marlon Brando epiphany.
A friend saw this clip of Brando’s 1972 Academy Award win and complained he manipulated Sacheen Littlefeather, the Apache woman who rejected the award on his behalf in order to spotlight Native American oppression and disenfranchisement, into serving as his mouthpiece. My friend thought it shored up Brando’s privilege while protecting him from the scrutiny and backlash of such a high profile confrontation.
I responded to my friend that Ms. Littlefeather was an activist herself; there is no reason to think she and Brando didn’t plan this political action together, as both protest against an unjust system and as bid to raise the visibility of those normally relegated to the sidelines.
Perhaps Jesus saw in the man he healed that day not a disability to be fixed or a branding opportunity, but a co-conspirator who chose to help publicize a message of societal transformation that would expose the hypocrisy of those committed to upholding the status quo.
It turns out that Jesus isn’t the jerk; I am, along with the Pharisees and all those who avoid what makes us uncomfortable at the cost of someone else’s inclusion.
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron is a thrift-vangelist, writer, preacher, preacher’s wife, mama, and Midwesterner transplanted to the South. She has a not-so-secret passion for pop music and loves being the lone millenial in her baby boomer-filled yoga class. Born & raised UCC, she’s bi-vocational, preaching at Decatur UCC in Atlanta every other Sunday while doing admin work at a big Presbyterian church during the week. She blogs at http://thriftshopchic.com.