What Does the Gospel Have to Say to Disabled Persons?

SOCIAL CONCERN AND EVANGELISM II

If evangelism is taking the Good News of help to the helpless and hope to the hopeless, shouldn’t we be concerned about taking it to the most helpless and hopeless? The gospel of Jesus must be accessible to all-even to a young man with cerebral palsy who cannot speak, who must sit twisted and bent in a wheelchair, an d is relegated to a back bedroom.

“But I’m an evangelist,” you might say. “I’m called to save people’s souls, not to help them find medical care, fix wheelchairs, or build ramps. I’ll leave such things to relief agencies who deal with special interest groups like the disabled.”

But this is no special interest group. We’re talking about the needs of a segment of people which cross all borders, nationalities, ethnic groups, and languages. Experts generally agree that 10 percent of the world population is disabled—over 516 million people. Disabilities do not discriminate—they touch the lives of everyone. For this reason, special attention is required to examine the relationship of our evangelistic efforts to the needs of disabled people in our world. To do so, let’s begin with the parable of the banquet in Luke 14:12-14:

“Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or уour rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

At first glance it might appear the Lord Jesus feels sorry for those “poor crippled folks who don’t ever get invited out to fancy banquets. Why, we’ve got to do something to lend a hand to those helpless invalids!” Does this parable intend to foster a “pity-the- poor-unfortunate” attitude toward the helpless?

Who Are the Helpless?

In the Gospels, all people are presented as in need of help. In fact, the Pharisees in Luke 14 may not have realized it, but in many ways they were more helpless than the poor and disabled people whom they victimized by prejudice and discrimination.

Yet, there are factors which make physically disabled people “helpless” in a unique way; we cannot evangelize them without first being prepared to address the “helpless­ness” of their physical needs. No evangelistic outreach is possible to disabled people without dealing with their physical impairment in some way, because it is the presence of this impairment which defines “disabled people” as a group—whether it is a birth defect, disease or injury, mental handicaps, blindness, or deafness.

A More Serious Handicapping Condition

However, there are factors other than physical needs which must also be considered. The handicapping conditions of discrimination, fear, and pity imposed by other people must be removed. Disabled people have had to learn to play the part of the cowering and indebted in order to survive in the world of the physically capable. They are often treated as if they are children. These unjust social handicaps keep disabled people locked in dependency and poverty.

This is the real message behind Luke 14:12-14. The parable has less to do with “lending a hand to those helpless mv alids,” and more to do with landing a knockout blow to the religious and social hierarchy which perpetuated the institutionalized discrimina­tion against disabled people.

How far was the Lord Jesus prepared to take his point? Look at the last verse in Luke 14:12-14. He closed his comments with the reminder that poor people might not be able to repay their hosts, but the hosts would, nevertheless, be repaid at the Resurrection.

Imagine what may have happened next. Jesus probably sat down, put his dinner napkin on his lap, and quietly picked up an hors d’oeuvre. Silence, no doubt, hung over the table as the Pharisees exchanged nervous glances. Scripture records what happened next: “When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, ‘Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God’” (Luke 14:15)

Obviously, the Pharisee was so uncomfortable that he could only relate to a discussion about the Resurrection, certainly not to the topic of entertaining the poor or the disabled. It was as if the Pharisee was saying, “Ah, the Resurrection! I can’t say that I follow your odd little ideas about dining with cripples, but I do agree with what you say about heaven. It’s so comforting to know that everything will work out perfectly in the end.” (See R. F. Capon, The Parables of Grace, [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1988], 13).

But Jesus was not about to let these religious leaders change the spiritual subject. S ince they refused to get the point of the first parable, Jesus launched into the next parable of the great banquet in Luke 14:16-24—twice as convicting, three times as forceful. The implication at the close of this parable was that some of these leaders themselves would not even make the guest list: “I. tell you, not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet” (Luke 14:24).

The Lord’s message was and is striking, convicting, and foreboding. And the message is for Christian leaders today who might exclude the poor in evangelism, neglect the disabled in Christian service, or systematically avoid persons who are blind, deaf, or mentally or physically handicapped.

What Is Our Message to the Disabled?

We know that our message to people is the Good News that Jesus Christ died for their sins, was raised from the dead, and that as reigning Lord he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gift of the Spirit to all who repent and believe.

However, in our uneasiness in dealing with the physical needs of disabled people, we may be prone to spiritualize away a person’s infirmity. In so doing, we may wrongly focus on the idea that our reigning Lord gives the liberating gift of miraculous healing to all those who pray in faith.

As a quadriplegic paralyzed from a diving accident, allow me to share from personal experience the message that truly liberates persons with disabilities. Shortly after I was injured, I read wonderful promises from Scripture such as 1 John 5:14, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”

I prayed in faith that God would hear me and heal me, but my fingers and toes still did not move. I went back to 1 John 5:14 and read it closer; that’s when it struck me. It didn’t say if we ask we will receive anything we think we might like or anything that would make life easier, but we will receive anything that’s actually “according to his will,”

But friends said to me, “Why in the world would it be God’s will to deny a Christian’s request for healing?” That’s a good question, but for every verse seeming to guarantee positive answers to our prayers for an easier, happier, healthier life, there are countless verses about the good things suffering can bring.

My disability helps take my mind off temporary enticements and forces me to think about God (Colossians 3:2). Trials have a way of making, us rely on the Lord (2 Corinthians 1:9). Sometimes sickness serves as God’s chastiser to wake us from our sin (1 Corinthians 11:29—30). And always God uses suffering to help us relate to others who hurt (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

This is the message which truly liberates.

But in the meantime, do we abandon disabled Christians to wait for physical liberation in the next life where they will exchange their handicaps for glorified health?

Practical Helps

If we can’t assure a disabled person of divine healing in the here and now, we can assure and comfort them with divine help. We need to present the gospel of Christ with one hand and help alleviate the pain with the other.

In your own church, or even when you hold an evangelistic meeting, make the gospel accessible to all. Find out where the disabled people are. Contact the local medical clinic to help locate and invite disabled people. Make certain they can easily gain entrance to your church building or evangelistic meeting. Provide space near the front for people who are hearing impaired, are in wheelchairs, or are on mats or stretchers. When, possible, have a Christian interpreter sign your message for those who are deaf.

Greet these people in a friendly, non-con descending manner, and feel free to reach out and touch—your example will speak loudly to those watching. If a person is non­verbal, ask them for their sign for yes and no, then simply ask questions which have yes or no answers. For those who are deaf, communicate with a pencil and pad of paper. If a person is blind, there is no need to shout—they only want to know that you are speaking directly to them, so be sure to look at them when you speak. For mentally handicapped people, don’t use “baby talk,” but speak simply and clearly.

Enlist church members to help with transportation or even help a disabled person get out of bed and dressed. Encourage church members to help by pushing wheelchairs. Have them hold hymnals and Bibles for those who are paralyzed. This kind of sacrificial service will teach able-bodied Christians what normal Christian living is all about.

Advancing Christ’s Gospel to People With Disabilities

The need is overwhelming. Of the more than 516 million people who are disabled in the world, over 42 million are reportedly blind and 294 million are deaf or hearing impaired. There are those disabled by civil strife in countries such as Nicaragua, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Angola, Ireland, or the West Bank of Israel. World relief agencies remind us of the plight of disabled people further handicapped by famine, drought, or hurricane.

These people need the proclamation and service of the gospel. Other religions may aggravate the desperate circumstances of disabled people, viewing them as victims of fate, but only in Christ can a disabled person be viewed as an individual with worth and dignity. In fact, it is the “least of these brothers” (Matthew 25:40) and “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker ” (1 Corinthians 12:22) who are to be given special places of honor.

Christians have the only message which vindicates God’s good name as one who is supremely and benevolently sovereign over deformities and disease. Christians have the gospel message which joins the sighted and blind, hearing and deaf, intellectually capable and mentally handicapped. No other ministry better demonstrates Christ’s heart of compassion than ministries to persons with disabilities. Helpless people can see themselves in the Man of Sorrows because he became one of them.

What Does the Parable of Luke 14 Say to You?

The Pharisee at the dinner with Jesus could not deal with the cold, hard reality which the Lord presented. He could only retreat into the safety of a spiritualized vision of the future that would demand nothing from him in the here and now.

Our attitudes would be corrected, our motivation focused, and our enthusiasm ignited if we truly understood the advantage of targeting evangelistic efforts toward those who are deemed helpless by the world. “Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5).

If we accept the call to be ministers of his Good News, we agree to be wi lling to take that message to all people—and that includes those with disabilities.

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Joni Eareckson Tada is founder and President of the Christian Fund for the Disabled, and of Joni and Friends, Inc, An author and painter, she is a citizen of the United States.

Edna Lee de Gutierrez is President of the Women’s Department of the Baptist World Alliance; she is a citizen of Mexico.