A reflection on John 9 through the lens of disability, by Rev. Brian Krause
The healing of the blind man in John chapter 9 is one of my favorite healing stories in the whole Bible. I love this story because in this story Jesus confronts and rejects the common belief that disabilities are somehow caused by sin. Jesus and his disciples are going along when they find a man who has been blind from birth. The disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind.” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (John 9:1-3)
I myself have encountered the idea that my Cerebral Palsy is punishment from God for some sin in my life. I have had some people pray for my healing. Most of the time it was forced upon me. I was told that first I needed to confess the sin(s) for which I was being punished. People have prayed for me to be healed and nothing has changed in me physically. I was once told that God wouldn’t heal me because I had a selfish need to be pitied. Unfortunately, some in the church today continue to teach the idea that disabilities are punishment for sin through the way they talk about healing passages.
When we preach, lead worship, and sing hymns we need to be careful how we speak about healing and disabilities. We especially should be aware of the pervasive narrative of the church regarding blindness. Too often blindness has been associated with a lack of faith. We see this in the infamous hymn, Amazing Grace; “I once was blind, but now I see.” Equating blindness to a lack of faith is harmful to people who are blind or have low vision.
This year during Lent we will be reading the story of the blind man in John chapter 9. As we think about this text and craft our sermons, we need to be careful how we speak about blindness to not cause greater harm to persons who are blind. We need to rethink the common ways that this text has been interpreted and find new ways to speak about this passage that are uplifting to all.
I commend to you the book A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability by Kathy Black. Kathy Black is an ordained Methodist minister who has served as the chaplain at Gallaudet University and pastored two churches for deaf persons. Black has also taught classes in deaf ministry and ministry with persons with disabilities as Wesley Theological Seminary, Pacific School of Religion, and the School of Theology Claremont.
In chapter one of the book Black gives a broad overview of how disabilities are often interpreted. Chapter two addresses hermeneutical hazards of preaching on healing narratives. In the subsequent chapters Black dives into the healing passages that appear in the Revised Common Lectionary where she offers common interpretations and then a new “healing homiletic” that looks at each story in a different way that is inclusive. Black looks at the various stories of Jesus healing people who are blind in chapter three.
Black raises some important issues in her reading of John chapter 9. Black speaks about the fact that people who are blind are often not believed and are not seen as credible witnesses. This appears multiple places in the narrative, first when the neighbors of the blind man refuse to believe in his healing. It appears again when the religious leaders don’t believe and call on the man’s parents. Black speaks about how the blind are often ignored and the tendency of people to speak only with a blind person’s companion instead of directly to the person themselves. Black says that when this happens, “the person with the disability becomes invisible-nonexistent.”1 Speaking only to the companion instead of the person with the disability is a common problem for people with various disabilities and may not be picked up by people who do not have experience with disabilities.
Black also speaks about what sometimes happens when people with disabilities speak up for themselves as the man who had been blind does in the text. Black says, “And like the man in this text, when they are bold and speak up for themselves they are seen as being too pushy or aggressive rather than as the passive receivers they are expected to be. They too experience rejection by faith communities.”2 Once again Black picks up on an issue that may not be recognized by those without experience with a disability.
How does Black suggest that we proceed in preaching about this passage? Black gives several options in her section on a “healing homiletic”. Black suggests we could look more at Jesus seeking out the man who had been born blind at the end of the narrative. Black says, “Certainly Jesus seeking us in our times of loneliness and rejection could be explored further.”3 Black also rightly notes the major change that happens in the former blind man’s life. Black suggests that a preacher could explore how major life events lead to changes like loss of community and identity and the long road to developing a new community and identity. Finally Black notes that this man did not have faith when he was healed and suggests that a preacher could challenge the idea that confession is needed before healing can occur.
There is so much good material in the third chapter, and I do not have enough space to relay it all here. I highly recommend that every pastor pick up a copy of this book and read it before preaching on healing passages. The way we talk about healing is important and getting it wrong can cause a lot of grief as I have experienced in my own life. We as a church need to do better when preaching on healing. With Kathy Black’s book I believe we can.
1 Black, Kathy. A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability. 71.
2 ibid. 73
3 Ibid, 77.