23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Discovering Our Disabilities
Discovering Our Disabilities
Readings: Isaiah 35:4-7; Psalm 145:6-10; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37
Picture: cc taberandrew
Sisters and brothers, imagine just for a moment that you suddenly have to move to a foreign country for some reason. Maybe for work. Or for study. Or perhaps even to take refuge from some misfortune or disaster. This is a place that you’ve never been to before. A faraway place, of which you have no prior knowledge at all. A place where internet access is... well... not very accessible. And, in this place, everyone speaks a foreign language. A language that you neither speak nor understand. A language that you’ve never even heard spoken before. Not only that, but the whole culture is strange to you. The food is different. The music is jarring. The religious practices bizarre. How do you think you will feel? At least at first?
You will hear people speaking to one another, and even to you, but you won’t understand them. You will want to speak to people, but you won’t be able to make yourself understood. You will see people doing things that seem odd to you. You won’t understand what they mean, or why they are being done. You may want to explore your new surroundings. But you won’t know where to go. Or how to get there. Or whether it’s safe. How do you think you will feel?
To see and hear, and not be able to understand. To speak and write, and not be able to make yourself understood. To want to visit new places, and not be able to move around freely. In short, at least in the beginning, your life in this new place will be an experience of dis-ability. There will be many things you cannot do, even though you want to. Which goes to show that you don’t have to be physically blind to be unable to see. You don’t have to be physically deaf to be unable to hear. You don’t have to be physically lame to be unable to move about. You can be disabled even if there is nothing wrong with your body. Not only that. It is actually possible to be disabled and not know anything about it. After all, you already had these disabilities before you moved to the new place. Before you got there, you already did not speak the language. You already did not know the culture. You already did not know how to get around. Before you got there, you were already disabled. You just didn’t realise it yet.
It is helpful for us to keep these two insights in mind as we meditate on our Mass readings today. First, that it is possible to be disabled and not realise it. And second, that there are disabilities that go beyond the physical. For our readings today are all about how God can and wants to heal our disabilities. In the gospel, Jesus heals a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech. And, in the first reading, the prophet Isaiah tells of a time when the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unsealed. A time when the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongues of the dumb sing for joy. Sounds like really good news. But what, we may wonder, does this have to do with us? Perhaps there may be a few of us here tonight who might have some difficulty seeing or hearing, speaking or walking about. But how many of us here are actually physically blind or lame? How many of us are physically deaf or dumb? Probably not many. So what possible relevance do our readings have for us today?
We begin to find an answer to this question only when we remember that there are disabilities beyond the physical. And only when we recall that we can actually be disabled without realising it. We find a good example of this in the second reading. Here, the author criticises people who discriminate against the poor. People who treat others according to how well or how poorly they dress. Or according to how much money they have in their pockets or bank accounts. Or how large an amount they are able and willing to donate to the synagogue.
And, although the reading doesn’t state it explicitly, it is not too difficult to see that all these people who discriminate against others like that, are actually disabled in some way. Although there may be nothing wrong with their eyes, their vision is still somehow impaired. When they look at a person, they see only a potential beggar or a benefactor. They see only poverty or wealth. They don’t really see the person. They can’t. Their prejudice prevents them. What is worse, they aren’t even aware of their own disability. Which is why the reading poses them a question that is as urgent as it is heartfelt: Can’t you see...? They are asked. Can’t you see that you have used two different standards…? Can’t you see your own bias. And the answer is no. They cannot see. They cannot recognise their own blindness. They are disabled by their prejudice. And they don’t even know it.
But we shouldn’t be too harsh on these people. For perhaps we ourselves are not too different from them. Or at least I’m not. What or whom do we really see when we look at others? When we look at our colleagues or classmates, for example. Do we really see the persons that they are? Or do we see only potential stepping stones or obstacles to our own advancement? When we look at our children or spouses, our parents or siblings, what do we see? Do we really see the persons they are? Or do we see only the expectations we may have of them? Or the unwelcome demands they might make on our already limited resources of time and energy?
Sisters and brothers, if we are truly honest with ourselves, how many of us can deny that what we said of the people in the second reading is probably applicable to us as well? To you and to me? Isn’t it true that we too have disabilities beyond the physical? Isn’t it possible that we might be disabled and still not realise it?
But that’s not all. There is an even deeper form of disability to be found in our readings today. A more profound kind of blindness that the Lord wishes to heal. In the gospel, after restoring the man who was deaf and dumb, Jesus orders the witnesses to tell no one about it. Why does he do that? His aim, after all, is to proclaim the good news of the coming Kingdom of God. Won’t it help to have people spread the news of the healing far and wide? Why doesn’t Jesus want others to know? Unless, of course, the kind of kingdom he is announcing is not the kind everyone else is expecting. Unless Jesus is worried that people are unable to appreciate, unable to accept, the kind of messiah he really is. Not the kind that will defeat the Romans and establish a worldly kingdom. But rather, the kind who walks the lonely road to the Cross. And there lays down his own life as a ransom for many.
Jesus doesn’t want people to know him as messiah, because they are are still unable to understand what this means. Like those who have recently moved to a foreign land, they understand neither the culture nor the language of the kingdom of God. The culture and the language of self-sacrificing love. Indeed, we may recall, that in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is only finally recognised for who he really is when he hangs dead on the cross. It is only then that a Roman centurion is able to say of him, Truly this man was God’s Son! (Mark 15:39) Jesus wants the healing to be kept secret because the people are suffering from a disability. They are unable to recognise a suffering messiah. And what we say about the people in the gospel, we can quite easily say about ourselves as well. We too are disabled in some way. For how many of us find it easy to recognise the Lord in the crosses we carry everyday?
But it is only when we acknowledge our disabilities, that we can claim the healing that our Lord is offering us today. For he wishes to take away our prejudices. Everything that keeps us from seeing his face, hearing his voice, and dashing headlong into his loving embrace.
Sisters and brothers, how ready and willing are we to claim this healing for ourselves today?