Word for the Week
Short reflections on Bible passages, with a frontline focus...
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.
Given that around one in five adults struggle with their mental health, you would think that talking about it would be commonplace. That, however, is not the experience of most sufferers.
It may be OK to share feeling low or anxious, but statistics tell us that most of those who struggle tend to struggle alone, and say little – particularly if they are affected by severe mental ill health, such as schizophrenia, or a bipolar disorder. Stigma and prejudice get in the way of truth-telling and human solidarity.
These issues are not new. There are countless stories in the ministry of Jesus that show him breaking down the barriers that stigma puts up – around those who were disadvantaged, people with disabilities, women, or foreigners. Here, in the story of the man born blind, the prejudice of the disciples is laid bare, with a question that associates illness and sin. The man’s affliction is physical, but the same questions and attitudes are often encountered by those with mental health challenges. Jesus responds swiftly, and decisively denies the link between sin and illness.
But there is more to the man’s predicament than his physical condition. The man has a family, parents, a community, and yet he is reduced to begging by the side of the road. Why was he left to do that? Did others assume he was incapable of doing anything else?
His difference isolated him and led others to make assumptions about him. Soon, they reduced him to only one thing – his disability. The community stopped seeing him as a full person, with much to give. He just became ‘the blind man’. His isolation and begging were not a direct result of being blind, but a combination of physical ailment, social prejudice, and alienation.
Jesus responds to the whole man. First, Jesus ‘saw’ him. Jesus did not simply pass by, but saw him. Jesus then treats him as someone with agency and abilities, and invites him to participate in the healing action by going to the pool and washing the mud off. And what’s more, Jesus challenges the community to learn to see him differently: not as ‘the blind man’, but as someone whose life can witness to ‘the glory of God’.
How do we nurture this ability to see whole persons, so that we can discern God at work in every life? And how do we respond to the whole person, rather than reduce people to a condition that affects them?
Revd Prebendary Dr Isabelle Hamley
Secretary for Theology and Theological Adviser to the House of Bishops
Look around on your front line. Who might feel isolated, invisible, or overlooked? How could you see them, and encourage them? Join the conversation in the comments below.