Disability and Faithfulness

Message for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (10/24/2021)

Mark 10:46-52


I want to read today’s Gospel again, but this time I’m going to invite you to close your eyes. And, as you experience the story a second time, try not to rely on your sense of sight, but instead activate your other senses. What is it you feel in your body? What is it you smell? What is it you hear?

As [Jesus] and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.


We often privilege the sense of sight when we approach the stories in scripture, when we approach Jesus, when we approach God. We imagine primarily in images, and the meaning we make is most often visual. That’s natural in a world made for seeing people. But, as I read today’s Gospel this past week, it struck me that the central character in this story cannot see, and it made me wonder about how he experienced the presence of Jesus on that road outside Jericho. And by extension, it raised for me the question of how people who live with disabilities experience church, experience the Bible, and experience God in general apart from the assumptions and patterns of nondisabled people.

It’s worth noting that the story of Bartimaeus and Jesus, because of where it falls in the lectionary cycle, is frequently displaced by the texts assigned for Reformation Sunday. We miss it so often, in fact, that I’ve never preached a sermon on this Gospel in nine years of ministry. All the more reason to ask: How shall we interpret this particular healing story in a way that honors the experience of people living with disabilities today?

Of course, the Gospels contain many narratives of healing, twenty-six of which include people with disabilities. But, as one interpreter points out, while these stories follow a general outline, every healing story includes “variations on [the] formula, coloring a particular [episode] with new insights into the characters of the healer and the healed.” For that reason, we need to read each healing story on its own terms in order to uncover its fullest meaning.

We also need to be aware of how we’ve read these stories in problematic ways. It’s often been the case, for instance, that we’ve associated disability with sin: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” That’s a different story than the one in today’s Gospel, but it’s reflective of a common assumption, both in Jesus’ time and our own. Consider, for instance, the lyrics of a beloved hymn: “Gather us in, the lost and forsaken, gather us in, the blind and the lame.” When we relate disability to waywardness or hopelessness, we may send the message that people with disabilities are spiritually deficient relative to nondisabled people.

And, even if we reject the direct link between disability and sin, we may nevertheless uphold the notion that people with disabilities are somehow flawed. Pastor Brian Krause, who lives with cerebral palsy, recalls the first question his peers often asked him as a child: “What’s wrong with you?” We may bristle at that question, but there’s an honesty in it that betrays our tendency to view disability as a defect. To complicate matters, the Gospels do seem to connect the removal of a person’s disability with their restoration to wholeness. And what’s more, by grouping these stories with similar stories involving disease, we imply that disability is a condition that requires healing.

But, that’s not necessarily the case. Bishop Craig Satterlee of the ELCA, who is legally blind, insists that “many people with disabilities… have larger and more pressing hopes and concerns than getting rid of their disabilities.” In fact, in defiance of any assumption that they’re somehow broken, “people with disabilities are bold to say that they are created in the image of God.”

How can we shift our attitudes to reflect that conviction? How can we come to view disability differently? Perhaps we can start with the biblical narrative itself. Pastor Krause suggests that the best way to understand the experience of a person with a disability is to enter into a genuine relationship with them through which trust and appreciation can grow. And, that’s just what Jesus does in our Gospel from Mark today. He stops the procession out of Jericho to receive Bartimaeus, pausing to honor his dignity and to hear his cry for mercy. And while the crowd tries to silence the blind man, Jesus summons him, standing still so that Bartimaeus might find him through the sea of travelers. When they come face to face, Jesus’ first question to Bartimaeus is not “What’s wrong with you?” but rather, “What do you want me to do for you?” He doesn’t presume to know what’s best for Bartimaeus, but allows him to speak for himself. In short, Jesus shows an interest in coming to know Bartimaeus first and foremost.

And for his part, Bartimaeus is not prevented from recognizing and accessing Jesus on account of his blindness; his disability is not a barrier to faithfulness. He calls out to Jesus with a messianic title, “Son of David,” and throws off his cloak when he jumps up to approach him, leaving behind his most prized possession in order to follow Jesus on the way. “The blind man could not see the light of truth,” writes John Chrysostom, “but in his soul he could feel his presence, and with the desire of his heart he laid hold of what his eye could not see.” That is to say, in contrast to others who don’t perceive Jesus’ true identity or who refuse to relinquish their grip on the things they own, Bartimaeus becomes a model of faith, and he does so prior to receiving his eyesight.

Why such an emphasis on the particular gift Bartimaeus brings to bear on the sacred story? It’s not only a question of respect, friends, but of revering the God whose image we see in the face of friend and stranger alike, whether that person lives with a disability or not. It’s a question of celebrating the ways we’re blessed by the beautiful diversity of the body of Christ. And, it’s a question of repairing the harm we may have done on account of our carelessness. “In a community of repair,” writes Bishop Satterlee, “we are always handing one another tools – new language, new perspectives, and new understandings – for making the community more inclusive and… ‘wise about the human other of all stripes.’” God grant us the grace we need for that holy work.

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