When you’re a child, it’s always good – and a boost to your confidence, and your happiness – when someone makes you feel that you’re special!
When I was at primary school every other child in the school was – as well as being white – possessed of two fully working legs and two fully working arms, could see properly (sometimes with the aid of glasses) and could hear properly. There were no children with a disability. Why? Because anyone who was deemed to be ‘different’ when it came to physical or mental disability was not allowed to go to the same school as everyone else. They were sent to what was known by everyone as The Special School. The pretence was that it was necessary because children with disabilities somehow needed extra-special care. Except, of course, it wasn’t special at all – it was a way of keeping those with disabilities out of sight and out of mind. It was very much a case of “them” and “us” – and as a child I never saw or engaged with “them” or vice versa – people thought it better that way.
Fortunately we now – in this country at least – live in a very different world. Not only are our schools fully integrated, but we now take all appropriate measures to ensure that those with disabilities – whether visible or invisible – can play as much a full and active role as everyone else, whether that’s at home, at work, at leisure. And to the extent that nobody thinks anymore about some people being somehow “different”!
Take Strictly Come Dancing! (That’s Dancing with the Stars to those from abroad) And yes, I know I’ve already mentioned Strictly this autumn, but it is one of the best programmes on TV! Even a few years ago it would have been impossible to imagine the inclusion of dancers with disabilities. And then last year we had the Paralympian Johnny Peacock, who lost his lower right leg at the age of five after contracting meningitis, on the show. And this year we have Lauren Steadman, also a Paralympian, who was born without a complete right arm. And fantastic dancers they both have proved to be, showing how unnecessary, how misguided, how dreadful, were the discriminatory attitudes of years past.
So try and cast your minds back if you can to a society where not only were people with disabilities often viewed with suspicion and excluded – it was also believed that if you were disabled it must be someone’s fault. You may recall the occasion – it’s in John’s gospel – when the disciples question Jesus about a man who was born blind: Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” That’s how people thought! And that’s the context in which Jesus is speaking in our gospel reading today! A culture, a society, where the prevailing belief was that people with disability had either brought it upon themselves, or their parents had, because of sin. And with no social services unless you had money, or a family prepared to care for you, it probably meant a life of begging on the streets.
No-one, of course, chooses disability. So what are we to make of Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel where he seemingly and shockingly advocates inflicting disability upon yourself? He exhorts his listeners, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell.”
I expect none of us would ever even contemplate such a thing. We certainly – I hope – wouldn’t contemplate doing such a thing to someone else, no matter how serious their offence! And we are horrified when we hear of regimes in other countries that believe that an appropriate way to deal with the crime of theft is to amputate a hand or a foot. How can anyone think that such barbaric practises are acceptable? And yet here we have Jesus suggesting that his listeners cut off their own hands or feet or pluck their eye out to stop themselves sinning. Of course, no-one ever took him at his word. Not at the time, and not since. It’s important to realize that in the Hebrew of Jesus’ time there was no easy way of expressing in the language shades of grey – it really was black or white. And in order to express the importance of dealing with sin Jesus uses an exaggerated emphasis to get his point across. Even in Jesus’ day no one took him at his word. There were no one-eyed or one-legged or one-handed people as a result of their own actions.
Let’s get this passage in some kind of context. The Gospel reading this week has a number of independent sayings, grouped together for convenience by Mark, but quite diverse in their meanings. The disciples are upset because someone who “is not one of us” is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Why are the disciples upset? Probably because earlier they themselves have been unable to cast out demons. Being human and somewhat fallible they are probably jealous and annoyed – so they try to stop the man. But Jesus welcomes all comers. In only the preceding verse as we heard last week Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Whoever does good, whoever shows love for others, he is saying, is showing it to my Father.
For unlike the schools of my childhood Jesus refuses to separate people into “them” and “us” and pretend that that is acceptable. Again and again he suggests ways of turning “them” into “us” so we all become “we”, through the medium of love. “Love your neighbours,” he says, “love your enemies.” Because if we really love people in the way that Jesus loves them, they become not outsiders to be hated and feared but part of our community, people to be embraced and loved and cherished. No longer “them and “us” but we are all one family.
But because it is difficult to do that, because we find it so hard to let go of our prejudices, our jealousies, our feelings of superiority, Jesus suggests radical surgery. He says that we should excise those parts of our ego which prevent us from loving others. Just as elsewhere he tells the comic story of the man trying to remove a speck from his friend’s eye when he has a plank in his own eye, so here he tells his friends to look to themselves, not to judge other people: “If your own hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.”
Essentially he is saying that there may be aspects of our personality, our behaviour, our attitudes, that dis-able us as people – that prevent us from becoming the ‘whole’ people that God calls us to be. For we are called to get rid of anything that gets in the way of love. Throughout the Old Testament there is a recurring refrain: Be perfect, even as God is perfect. We must work actively to overcome those things that get in the way of that perfection. Even though true perfection is impossible in this life, for we all sin and fall short of God’s glory as Saint Paul puts it, that is what we must aim for. It’s not that we should literally cut off parts of our bodies: it’s the sin – the hatred, the bigotry, the suspicion, the rejection – that must be cut off, excised!
And we must do that for ourselves – we are not to go around pointing out the wrong in others, but by self-examination get rid of all the wrong that we ourselves are guilty of!
And Jesus goes on to suggest that his disciples should be like salt, flavouring the whole population and helping to preserve people. But, he says, salt only works when it is fresh. If it loses its essential saltiness, it is useless. One way of remaining salty is to recognise when we put stumbling blocks in the way of others reaching God – and to get rid of them.
The answer is always to keep love at the top of our value list and to look to our own faults rather than judging others. Let us never become like a sort of Christian Taliban, demanding dire punishments for those who do not follow our ways – rejecting those who do not somehow fit in. We will change our world through love, through inclusion – not through rejection and separation.
For Jesus welcomed everyone, no matter who or what they were. And he taught his disciples, as today he teaches us, to do the same.