written by Stephanie Shockley
One evening my husband and I were having dinner with a friend I had met when I attended a summer camp for blind and visually impaired children decades ago. Our neighbor knocked on our door. We invited him in, introduced our friend, and mentioned our friend’s guide dog, who was playing in the living room with our pet dog.
I don’t recall exactly what our neighbor said, only that he asked a question about our friend, perhaps something about the guide dog. What I do remember clearly is that our neighbor asked my husband and I the question, referring to our friend in the third person. It was as if our dinner guest wasn’t right there, sitting at the dining room table with us. There was a pause, in which I might have gasped, and I am sure I looked horrified. Our neighbor realized what he had done, rephrased the question, and addressed our friend directly.
In our Gospel reading assigned for today, Jesus and his disciples, followed by a large crowd, are leaving Jericho, headed up to Jerusalem, when they encounter two blind men sitting by the roadside. The text does not specifically say that they were begging, but other gospel texts tell us that this spot on the road just outside the city was a common place for people to beg for money from passing travelers. We also know that disabilities were regarded as deeply shameful in the ancient Near East, and believed to be evidence of sin and a source of great dishonor to a family. For this reason, it is very likely that these men had no source of support other than begging.
When the two blind men hear that Jesus, a respected teacher with a reputation for healing, is coming along the road, they cry out to him for help. The crowds try to silence the men, telling them, in not so many words, that they do not deserve the attention of the famous rabbi and healer.
What Jesus does here is critically important to note if we are to learn from this passage. Notice that Jesus does not ask the crowds what the men, who are sitting right there and can speak for themselves, want. Jesus also does not assume that he knows what the men need. He speaks directly to them. He asks them what they need. He leaves open the possibility that they know more about their own lives than he, a stranger, does, and that they may have some pressing concern other than vision loss. Only once he has heard what the men are asking for does Jesus do anything.
In this passage, Jesus sets an example for us, showing us how we are to interact with others we encounter. This story is a reminder that as followers of Jesus we are called to treat our fellow human beings with respect. That means respecting others’ autonomy, personal space, and ability to speak for themselves. That means recognizing and trusting that people are experts on their own situation.
Ask any person with a disability and they will probably recount stories of being ignored or talked over, being touched without permission, and being made to listen to unsolicited advice or prayers. Those who use guide dogs have stories of interference by people who believe they are entitled to access a stranger’s method of navigation, just because it has cute floppy ears and a wagging tail. People who use wheelchairs often deal with members of the public trying to move them without permission. People with “invisible” disabilities are faced with frequent judgment and amateur medical opinions from those who know nothing of their condition.
When our neighbor talked about our friend as if he wasn’t there, just because he’d discovered our friend is blind, I found myself wanting to prove why he deserved more respect. I wanted to show our neighbor my friend’s LinkedIn profile, with all his professional accomplishments and two graduate degrees, all of which he achieved while disabled. I wanted to talk about his spouse, his children, his house, all of the interesting flowers and vegetables he grows in his garden each summer, the 5K races he’s run.
But I didn’t tell our neighbor about any of those things. Nobody should need to hand out their resume to prove they should be treated with respect, or that they deserve to be heard, or that others should refrain from making assumptions about their needs and abilities. People are worthy of respect simply because they exist, human beings created in God’s own image. People who are part of marginalized groups – people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, people of color, and others, don’t have to earn the right to be heard by having certain kinds of education or a nice house or interesting hobbies. Each and every person deserves to be heard simply because of their presence.
Time after time, throughout the Gospels, Jesus models how we should treat each other if we truly believe that the kingdom of God has come near. He feeds the five thousand simply because they are hungry. He talks with women and tax collectors even when others shun them. He treats people with illnesses and disabilities with the same regard he gives everyone else. This story of the stop on the road to Jerusalem demonstrates, in clear, concrete fashion, what it looks like to respect the dignity of every human being.
Photo taken by Dan Shockley.
The Rev. Stephanie Shockley is the Priest-in-Charge of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross in North Plainfield, NJ. She has also worked as a hospital chaplain as well as a volunteer chaplain to New York City’s activist community.