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In the Gospels, living with a disability can be dangerous to your health when Jesus is around.

Sometimes disabled people go to Jesus, and other times Jesus comes to them, but an element of unpredictability remains. You never know what Jesus is going to do or say. He isn’t strict about following Sabbath regulations. He usually attracts a crowd. And Jesus often sparks controversy.

The most quoted encounter with a disabled person is found in John 9—the story of the “man born blind”—which gets several people in a hot mess, including the blind man, his parents, the religious leaders, the disciples, and Jesus himself.

Another famous encounter, the “healing of the paralytic,” appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Mark’s narrative (2:1-12), a paralyzed man on a mat is lowered through the roof of an overcrowded house where Jesus is teaching. Commending the faith of the four friends who orchestrated this dramatic entrance, Jesus forgives the paralyzed man’s sins, which is controversial among religious leaders in the house.

Jesus is courting blasphemy since only God can forgive sins. Jesus responds, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’?” Then, to prove the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins, Jesus cures the man’s paralysis and instructs him to stand up and walk to his home, carrying his mat.

It’s a remarkable account in many respects, but the text fails to address numerous questions about the paralyzed man and the friends who brought him to Jesus:

  • Whose idea was it to see Jesus in the first place—the friends, or the paralyzed man?
  • Did the man want Jesus to heal his paralysis, or was he there mainly to listen to the teaching of Jesus
  • Was there conversation in the room connecting disability and sin? Was that an issue in Capernaum, where this took place?
  • How did this man become paralyzed? Was there an accident? Was the man responsible for whatever caused his paralysis?
  • Did anyone stick around afterward to fix the roof?

As a person with a lifelong disability, I used to like this story, but now I find it mostly problematic. Several disabled friends I’ve spoken with about Mark 2 feel similarly (though not all)—all are faithful Christians with deep roots in the church.

My friend Rhonda lives with epilepsy: “To me, this is not a helpful story—the man not named, but simply called a ‘paralytic.’ He’s defined by his disability. Jesus does not engage the person with a disability but allows the friends speak for him. And, the man needs ‘fixing’ to be whole.”

Mark is guilty as charged. In fact, the entire Bible is guilty of labeling people by their condition and seldom referring to them by name. (For the remainder of this post, I’ll name this man “Matt.”)

Here’s what my friend Rich said about Mark 2: “I wish the part that says ‘Your sins are forgiven’ wasn’t in there. People asked my mother what she did wrong that I was born with dwarfism—like there was some sin in her life that caused my condition.”

Rich is not alone, and his mother isn’t the only parent who’s wondered if they bore responsibility for their child’s condition. It’s a common tendency to look for cause-and-effect so we can pin the blame on some person or thing, or at least try to make sense of it.

Here’s what a theological document from the Reformed Church in America says about connecting sin and disability:

Parents of children with mental illness may be tempted to blame themselves for their child’s problems, and other onlookers may harbor the same suspicions. There is at times in our hearts an almost instinctive response to failure and loss—wondering what we have done to deserve such misfortune. … [But the] church must say loudly, and believe heartily, that disability is not a divine punishment.

My friend Brian became paralyzed below the waist at age 54 by a rare spinal cord condition. “It started with a sore back on a Monday. The following Monday I was having emergency surgery to stop the bleeding in my spinal cord. I struggled with why this happened to me, and if I was responsible because of sin in my life. It wasn’t until I talked with my pastor that my feelings of guilt were removed. I still pray that God will heal this very small spot in my spine so that I can walk again, and I ask that he will give me strength to deal with it.”

My friend Amy, on the other hand, was 15 when an automobile crash severed her spinal cord almost 30 years ago. “I have always struggled with this passage—it makes my skin crawl, like I deserve to be this way. I don’t see my paralysis as a sin, which is what this seems to be saying.”

(John Calvin’s commentary on this story isn’t helpful: “Christ appears here to promise to the paralytic something different from what he had requested: but, as he intends to bestow health of body, he begins with removing the cause of the disease, and at the same time reminds the paralytic of the origin of his disease, and of the manner in which he ought to arrange his prayers.”)

As noted in previous Sundays this month, “curing” and “healing” are not the same thing and aren’t interchangeable, even though they are often used that way in Scripture and in everyday use. For people with disabilities, there’s a whole range of perspectives, regardless of their religious perspectives. (For more on this, I commend a recent episode of The Accessible Stall podcast on “Cures”; the two disabled hosts dig into the topic at the 8:40 mark.)

“Most spinal cord injuries don’t recover, and we don’t see miracles like this today. Why?” my friend Amy asks. “Life would be so different without paralysis. I know a younger guy who was injured a year ago who prays for a cure every day. He keeps using a temporary wheelchair! I don’t try to change his mind, but personally, I never pray for a cure. I pray about other things, like keeping myself healthy.”

The way Mark tells it, Jesus sounds more concerned about Matt’s sin than his disability. Curing Matt’s paralysis seems to be an afterthought—as if the cure happens mainly to teach the scribes a lesson that Jesus has authority to forgive sins.

What most impressed Jesus in this story was the faith of Matt’s friends. Mark says nothing about the faith of Matt, or if he believed Jesus was who he claimed to be. I now find that to be refreshing and the most liberating aspect of this text. Matt’s faith did not somehow cure him, and faith was not a prerequisite for the cure Jesus extended to him. The truly healing aspect of this story is that by curing Matt’s paralysis, Jesus seeks to remove any lingering stigma that Matt’s disability was his own fault. The issue of sin is separate from the presence of a disability.

How we interpret disability texts in the Bible and the “healing narratives” matters. Many traditional interpretations fall short and perpetuate stereotypes about people with disabilities.

In A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability, Kathy Black encourages preachers to understand the “lived realities and experiences of persons with those disabilities when preparing sermons on these texts. … If we do not, the very people Jesus healed and welcomed into the family of God will be rejected and ostracized from the faith communities of today.”

Woman under blanket photo by Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash
Woman praying photo by Ivan Samkov on Unsplash

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.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I am so grateful that you honor the text by wrestling with it, honestly, reporting your dislikes of it, questioning it, confronting what it doesn’t say, confronting its implications, like “Wrestling Jacob.” (I would love your take on that story. ) You open the text, and you open all of us, without nice answers, but with a full engagement of the God of scripture. Thank you again. And you challenge our own easiness and comfortable ignorance.

  • Tom Boogaart says:


    Thank you for this series of reflections. It felt like a healing. You opened our eyes not only to see the Scriptures but also the community around us.

  • Christopher Poest says:

    I agree with Dan. Thank you, Terry.

  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    Thanks for opening my eyes to these stories of healing in such a real, truthful way. As Dan says in his comment, “You honor the text” by showing us how to honestly wrestle with it here and elsewhere. Your weekly posts have been so insightful and enlightening. Thanks again.

  • Lee DeYoung says:

    I join in Dan’s affirmation of your thoughtful insights. Thanks, Terry.

  • Mark Stephenson says:

    Terry, thanks for your work in producing this insightful series, and for opening our minds to the idea that traditional understandings (in my culture anyway) of the healing texts are not facts but interpretations, often based on ableist assumptions. As you deftly demonstrate, other interpretations can be much more affirming of people with disabilities in the Bible and people living with disabilities today.

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