Sorting by

Skip to main content

No, it’s not fair to measure the New Testament “healing narratives” against contemporary standards like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but it can be a useful exercise when trying to understand why many people with disabilities want little to do with the church or the Christian faith.

“Jesus Cures a Deaf Man” is how the NRSV subtitles Mark 7:31-37. As Jesus is headed toward the Sea of Galilee, an unidentified group brings him a deaf man with a speech impediment and begs Jesus to “lay his hand on him.” Jesus takes the deaf man away from the crowd, put his fingers into his ears, and applies his own saliva to the man’s tongue. With a deep sigh, Jesus says to the deaf man, “Ephphatha” (which means “be opened”). Suddenly, the man can hear and speak plainly.

Providing “reasonable accommodations” is the ADA’s attempt to level the playing field somewhat for people with disabilities. But stories like this one make me wonder who’s getting the reasonable accommodation—the deaf man, or everyone else? Restoring the deaf man’s hearing and speech is a compassionate response that allows for easy communication, but it does nothing to support others who are deaf or unable to speak plainly.

Whenever Jesus cures an impairment or disability, among other things it reinforces the medical model of disability, which suggests the problem resides in the individual and needs to be fixed or cured. It also undercuts the social dimensions of disability, which contend that the social structures and built environments we’ve established—usually for the dominant, able-bodied population—can be limiting factors for people with disabilities.

This story poses other difficulties that jar our sensibilities or often go unrecognized. For instance, did the deaf man in this Gentile region know who Jesus was, and did he have any choice about going to see Jesus in the first place? What are we to make of the invasive actions of Jesus, like putting fingers in the man’s ears and spit on his tongue? (They’re not an ancient form of sign language!) Even if they could be interpreted as attempts to communicate, they’re imposed, with no indication that the deaf man knew what was happening or had given permission.

Further, Mark tells us nothing about the man’s past or present, what may have happened to his hearing and speech, how compromised his hearing actually was, how he was viewed by others, or if he was a voluntary participant in this exchange with Jesus.

As Kathy Black writes in A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability, disabilities are mentioned often in the New Testament, but Mark 7:31-37 is the only one that narrates the story of a person with deafness. We don’t know the degree or duration of the man’s hearing loss. Was he born deaf, had he become deaf sometime after birth, had he been speaking at some point? None of these complexities factors into Mark’s narrative. Yet, named or not, they have much to do with how people living in our ADA landscape interpret the actions of Jesus.

Those within today’s “capital D” Deaf culture (mainly people who were born Deaf and raised by Deaf parents) are a cultural, linguistic minority, with their own language, values, and customs. They have the physical ability to make sounds, but their speech is often compromised or unintelligible because they cannot hear how to pronounce words (which some have equated with lack of intelligence, thus the evolution of dumb as an inability to speak). They typically reject identifying as disabled and aren’t interested in a physical cure. Deaf people who grew up without any hearing and used sign language as their primary language consider themselves culturally Deaf.

On the other hand, many who become hard of hearing or “lower d” deaf later in life are very interested in a cure because they have lost something precious, which often leads to loss of relationships and isolation from family and community. Those who grew up hearing and speaking a language such as English will always be culturally hearing, even if they can no longer hear. Mark gives clues that the deaf man could hear at one time, but it’s not obvious.

Deaf culture is widely misunderstood and usually unknown and invisible to the hearing population. I’ve felt uncomfortable and out of place when attending secular or church gatherings made up primarily of and for Deaf people, particularly when an interpreter isn’t available.

It’s easy to imagine why those in the hearing culture of Mark’s story wanted Jesus to cure the deaf man.

To learn a bit about Deaf culture, I commend the 2021 movie “CODA,” winner of three Academy Awards including best picture. It provides a window into the challenges of a Deaf family with a hearing daughter living in a hearing world. The basic plot line may be a familiar one, and from the perspective particularly of Deaf culture, it may not be a perfect movie. Yet it clearly portrays and embraces the Deaf experience and, for a change, showcases actual Deaf actors in Deaf roles.

Set in coastal Gloucester, Massachusetts, it’s a contemporary coming-of-age tale of a 17-year-old girl—a Child of Deaf Adults (hence the acronym title “CODA”) with a Deaf older brother—who is exhausted from serving as the family’s bridge to the hearing world. Further, she’s discovered her singing voice may be good enough to get into Boston’s Berklee College of Music, which puts her at odds with her family for multiple reasons.

It’s definitely worth watching, but a heads-up: Don’t expect the church to show up anywhere in “CODA,” which is understandable given our less than stellar history with people with disabilities in general and Deaf culture in particular.

Header photo by Sharon Waldron on Unsplash
Women communicating using sign language photo by SHVETS production on Pexels

Terry DeYoung

Terry DeYoung is a longtime disability advocate and promoter of accessible, anti-ableist communities that welcome and benefit from the gifts and experiences of all people. A Chicago native, he left a career in sportswriting to pursue ordination in the Reformed Church in America, serving as a pastor, magazine editor, and denominational staff member in Disability Concerns until his retirement in 2023.

Terry is married to Cindi Veldheer DeYoung, a hospital chaplain and advocate for living donor transplantation. They share their home in Holland Michigan with Dexter, a lively Brittany Spaniel. Among other things, they enjoy traveling, boating, baseball, craft beer, and all things Chicago.


  • RZ says:

    Wow! This is enlightening and yet troubling. Are not Jesus’ individual healing stories our favorites? Is not Heidelberg Answer#1, ” I am not my own,” our individual favorite also? And is not each of our favorite wishes to be individually healed of some personal malady?
    But then, if you have not been individually and personally healed miraculously, or if you live among the masses in Norh Korea, or Sudan, or Guatemala, or Gaza, then your perception of life and of God is not one of fairness. For every biblical healing, there must have been scores of the “unhealed” asking , “Why am I not healed?”

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Well, this makes us all uncomfortable, doesn’t it! A real challenge (as is Mark’s Gospel from beginning to end).

  • Harlan VanOort says:

    Maybe the healing Mark’s gospel proclaims is the breaking down of barriers that separate people into increasingly narrow groups.
    Another thought: Terry, thank you for being an outstanding destroyer of dividing walls.

  • Henry de Jong says:

    My great uncle Berend Beekhuis, born Nov 19, 1918 was Deaf. He stayed with the church his whole life (97 years) and was an active and beloved part of many lives, including his relatives here in Canada. He travelled the world, and his outlook was positive. We were privileged to worship with Berend and Giny in 1983 in their home church for the Deaf in Groningen. Why the need to feel uncomfortable with the grace of Jesus or to question God’s fairness vis a vis the Spanish Flu?

  • Steve Wykstra says:

    This is indeed a startling but amazing post. Thank you for a new (to me) perspective and for your searching reader-response questions about the narrative and its (and our) culture!

  • Gloria J McCanna says:

    Terry, you continue challenge us. Thank you.

Leave a Reply