Disability and Idiom in the New Testament
“We have left undone those things
which we ought to have done;
and we have done those things
which we ought not to have done;
and there is no health in us.”
Anyone who has been brought up Anglican will recognise this section of the BCP. Week in, week out, it’s in those yellowing orders of service we all know and love. It’s only recently that I’ve started to reflect on what this lack of “health” as a metaphor for our inherent sin really means. Once we begin to think about it, physical “health” as indicative of moral strength is not straightforward to the understanding of a Christian God.
An example which I personally find very difficult to rationalise is that of Luke 11’s “The Lamp of the Body”. (Luke cross references Matt 6:22, and so the same issues I raise here apply there too). The image in the text does not feel fair or consistent with the ideas of God towards which Christian Theology is committed.
“34 Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy, your body also is full of darkness. 35 See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness.”
The analogy of the good eye and the evil eye is a Hebraic one, where a good, healthy eye indicates an un-tainted morality in humanity. This enables the human to “see” the truth, and worship God as is fitting of His creation. This raises a series of objections, morally and theologically. If Natural Theology (seeing the world and, from this, seeing God) were a sound mechanism, then the purpose of organised religion would be null and void- we would not need spiritual advice, as the answers would all be contained in personal empirical efforts. Christian Theology must assert that this cannot be the case or risk dismantling God’s Kingdom on Earth: the Church tradition. No-one can see God just by looking at the world, then. However, if we all, in fact, cannot “see” God, then why do we not all have “evil” eyes, or eyes full of darkness? If physical ill health or disability were the marker of one who cannot see God, then why are we not all equally “unhealthy”? Are not we all waiting in hope for the ‘deus ex machina’ that is heavenly grace? We can see that the creation of some people with physical ailments and some without is not indicative of that person’s morality or salvation path: some perfectly “healthy” individuals turn out to be morally corrupt villains. If how a person is created in fact does not determine their path to salvation, then has God predicted people’s paths wrongly? Even if the metaphor is not referring to people’s physical eyes, it relies on human sight as knowledge of divine “light”, a physical fact about our universe. If this perceptual mechanism is invoked by the metaphor, then a lack of human sight, or a disability in the eye, does block the channel of knowledge from human to divine. This is uncomfortable.
Take another Lukan example, “The Healing of the Man with Dropsy”. (Luke 14: 1–6). The introduction to the man with dropsy is, in the original Greek, “καὶ ἰδοὺ ἄνθρωπός τις ἦν ὑδρωπικoς ἔμπροσθεν αὐτοῦ”. The “tis” refers to an indefinite male subject, who, if we translate literally, was dropsied. His disease, dropsy, engulfs him. Dropsy itself is morphologically derived from water (ὑδωρ, ὑδρος). An excess of it is indicated by the adjectival product, dropsied, describing this man. This man’s disease, from which Jesus relieves him, has a moral dimension to it which assigns blame to the man. The text suggests that this man has poor physical health because of his moral tendency to excess. Again, this seems puzzling. We must be all lacking in understanding, otherwise, again, personal use of Natural Theology would be a sound Christian epistemology. Everyone is spiritually lacking in some way or another, this suggests. If one person’s innate sinfulness is physically manifested, then why isn’t everyone’s fatal flaw indicated in some disease which embodies said flaw? If some moral shortcomings are physically apparent and others not, then, surely, the physical is not a reliable indicator of who is sinful and who is sinless? If this is the case, then how is it fair that some suffer ailments, while others don’t, even though all are equally morally blameworthy? Even if we argue that this physical ailment allows the unnamed man to be noticed and healed by Jesus, this is unsatisfying. If this were a better mechanism for spiritual healing, then, again, why would we not all physically manifest our sins in ill health and be healed in our worldly lives? Jesus could have had a different redeemer role in which, like a soteriological production line, each human, displaying her sin in a physical manifestation, was healed in her earthly life. In cases of physical difference rather than disability, where does the difference begin to have a moral dimension of bad moral “health” which necessitates salvation, rather than a feature of diversity to be celebrated? The parameters of this metaphor are messy and, in practice, undefinable.
Perhaps, then, there is no satisfactory answer to this issue of language. Whenever the morning prayer is spoken, it continues to trouble me. The Biblical trope is, at least for now, a part of liturgy spoken at Church. Beyond liturgy, the trope remains commonly used: as recently as 2020, the film of DC’s Wonder Woman 1984 includes a villain who is disfigured for no reason relevant to the storyline; evidently, humanity is accustomed to such imagery. The physical as a barometer to the moral health seems here to stay. The question is, in using this imagery, can a Christian claim to see the true nature of God?