In John 9, Jesus and his disciples are going along when they see a man who was born blind, the disciples ask Jesus
“Rabbi who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
As a 21st century Indian Christian how do you feel about that question? Do you ask yourself the same thing when you see people with disabilities? Do you wonder why the disciples were so sure that someone must have sinned? Or have you never particularly thought about it?
For about 400 years before this event a theory had been circulating in the Greco-Roman world that said the physical condition of a person was a sign of their moral character. Leading thinkers like Aristotle held that a person who was physically bent over like the woman in Luke 40:11 probably had a feeble moral character, whilst one with a strong straight back would have a strong high moral character. That thinking was prevalent at the time of Jesus. We see something of it in John 9:34 when the Pharisees declare that the blind man was “steeped in sin at birth.”
In the same way, prevalent in the culture in which we live in India is the philosophy of karma where-in according to say, Swami Sivananda, Prarabdha is the past action which has given rise to the present birth and Sanchita is the balance of past actions that will give rise to future births – (the storehouse of accumulated actions.) How this manifests in individual beliefs is that when seemingly bad or disappointing or difficult things happen it must be because of bad actions in the past (for which read sin). By that definition, being born blind or with any other disability must be attributed to bad karma or bad actions/sin in a former life.
Because we are Christians in a culture where these kind of beliefs are prevailing we must pay attention to Jesus’ reply to the disciples and work through and be completely clear what it means. In doing so we shall find we know God better and can welcome people with disabilities into our congregations as we have never done before.
Jesus is unequivocal when he tells the disciples
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”
When we looked at this text in our Bible Study Group here in Delhi, Neelam told us that it was the single most liberating scripture of her young life. She is a nurse in AIIMS, an intelligent and sensitive new Christian. She has an orthopaedic disability and wears a calliper. All her life she has been asked what she did in an earlier life to have ended up with this disability. Neighbours and family friends and even her parents have felt comfortable to ask her. She, of course, could never answer their questions and felt the terrible load of it somehow being her fault. For her to hear Jesus say that it was not the sin of the blind man nor of his parents that caused the blindness liberated her from the cruelty of the question of karma.
In the gospel story Jesus then goes on to say
“it has happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life”.
The Pharisees tell the blind man he must accept that God has given him sight and give God the glory (Vs 24). But the man insists that Jesus healed him “I was blind but now I see” (vs. 25) and since no one has ever heard of a man being born blind being given sight then Jesus must be from God (vs. 33). Jesus used this blind beggar, this so called sinner from birth, to see that He, Jesus, was indeed the Messiah. Here is the inclusive, gracious God using all kinds of people for his purposes. It does not mean that God has set people with disabilities amongst us as examples or to make us all understand Him better; that would be absurd, God is not like that and it would be wrong of us to somehow explain away disability in that manner.
Be clear, Jesus says disability is not caused by sin and he illustrates that God may use all kinds of people for his purposes including those with disabilities. By acknowledging and sharing these truths, church in India will be strengthened in its response to disability so as to free those who are burdened by unanswered karma questions.