Forming Faith Blog

Ableism and Healing (John 9)

What is ableism and how does this topic of discrimination color our readings and interpretation of the healing story in John 9: the healing of the man born blind?

A white cane for blindness. Our treatment of disability and healing in the Bible is affected by ableism.
Photo by Eren Li on

Disclaimer: In this post, I bring up the topic of ableism. My goal here is to point to a problem that I have been made aware of, not to indicate that I am any kind of expert in these matters. which I am not. I am still learning and will likely get things wrong, for which I beg for grace. I hope that by bringing this topic into the conversation, I can spur others to learn and—more significantly—to listen to people with disabilities.

What Is Ableism?

Ableism is a word I’ve just learned about in the past few years. Ableism is a form of discrimination that belongs in the same category as sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, etc. To be oversimplistic, these forms of discrimination arise from the social/cultural rules that people with certain characteristics are normal (read good or privileged) and that people with different characteristics are abnormal (read bad or lacking). So, ableism is a form of discrimination in which having certain abilities “below” the social norms is bad, and having those abilities within the social norm is good. This discrimination is based on subjective, social judgment, not objective, descriptive facts.

Overcoming Ableism

Fighting ableism is not about denying reality. It is not about erasing differences in the physiological functions of people’s bodies (which includes their brains). It’s not about denying that certain characteristics are more common in a particular population than others. We fight ableism by affirming in thought, word, and action that all people are equal in dignity and worth (as image-bearers of God). We move beyond bare toleration and acceptance to full belonging, not because of or in spite of these differences, but just straight-up belonging. But due to the history and continued existence of discriminatory systems, thoughts, words, and actions, it is critical to bring people with disabilities to the leadership table because of their experience as people with disabilities.

Ableism and the Bible

Ableism is not a modern invention. While I have no specific knowledge of the history of ableism throughout time and cultures, I am confident about saying that. It has certainly existed for a long time and can be found in Scripture. Now, whether it is inherently in Scripture or in our interpretation of Scripture, I do not feel qualified to assert. But one of the most common places this is seen is in healing miracles.

Ableism and Healing Miracles

However, healing miracles are not necessarily ableist. Remember, ableism is about value judgments; it is subjective, not objective. A healing miracle is not about changing someone bad to good or less to more. It is not about making someone more worthy of God’s love. A healing miracle is a physically measurable change in characteristics. At the beginning of our Bible passage today (John 9:1-41), there is a man who has never been able to see. By verse 7, he can see.

Is this a good change? Is it desirable? That’s a personal, subjective judgment. The recipients of healing miracles certainly seem to desire this. And that makes sense. Their illness or disability might have caused them pain and likely made it so that they could not support themselves financially or be fully accepted into their community. But just because a certain judgment might be common, even universal, does not deny the fact that it is a subjective judgment.

Signs in the Gospel of John

The writer of the Gospel of John does not call Jesus’ deeds of power “miracles.” He describes them as signs (John 2:11). Here, and in general usage, a sign points to something. Jesus’ signs point to him being the Son of God, the Divine Word made flesh. While each sign story has circumstances and characters, the point of their inclusion is to tell us something about Jesus. Primarily is that Jesus has power over things that humans do not (matter transformation, matter multiplication, sickness, physical disabilities, weather, gravity, and finally death). So, this particular healing is not about whether the blindness is good or bad, but that Jesus has God’s power.

A Bit on Translation

You might or might not know that the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that had been handed down to us did not contain any punctuation. Not even spaces between words! When we look at a Greek New Testament today, we see punctuation and spaces, which scholars had to add in. Bible translators do amazing work, but they must make choices in their translations, and this affects our interpretation.

So, one of the problematic parts of this healing story is John 9:3:

Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.

While Jesus makes the important point that the man’s blindness wasn’t a punishment for anyone’s sin, people often interpret the second part as “God made this man blind from birth so that Jesus could heal him at this point.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not okay with that.

Dr. Rolf Jacobson, one of my professors at Luther Seminary and one of the founders of the Narrative Lectionary, had an interesting idea about this passage (I’m afraid I cannot remember when or where he said this. Sorry, Rolf, if I’m getting anything wrong here). He changes the punctuation here, and it changes the meaning.

Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind. So that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.

In this translation, Jesus purely restates the fact: the man was born blind. Period. Then, Jesus says that he and his disciples must do God’s work so that God’s works might be revealed in this man.

I don’t have the knowledge to confirm nor deny this, but it does provide insight.

The New Disciple as Leader

I’ve just read a wonderful article by the Rev. Miriam Spies called “Making Space, Offering Voice” that discusses this story of the healing of the man born blind in terms of disability theology. I would highly recommend it, though you do need to access it through a paid website.

I won’t even try to do a thorough job at summarizing her work, but one of her points (as I understood it) is to emphasize the power and agency of the man as a truth-telling disciple. Throughout the story, this new disciple becomes more certain about who Jesus is, and he is not afraid to challenge the religious leaders, even though I’m sure he could predict the consequences. This was not merely because he could now see, but from his growing faith in Jesus as the Son of Man. This took courage that Nicodemus did not have (John 3), which makes this (unfortunately) unnamed man an example to us all.

May we all have the courage of this new disciple.


Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

Free Resource

During the main Narrative Lectionary year (this year: Sept 12 to June 5), we provide a free activity download from one of our products to help you in your faith formation ministry. This week, download “Healing Water,” from our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Education (NL) curriculum, though this can be used with many ages in many contexts!

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