The glory days of disabled sportsmen and women are concluding this weekend. For the last eleven days we’ve had a chance to watch them competing for medals, as many watchers all over the world have not. Seemingly people fighting against other competitors as well as against the odds should be even more exciting to watch than the able-bodied Olympians. Recent reports estimate about a 2.5 million-wide audience, roughly half the one watching Match of the Day. Disability still puts us in an uncomfortable situation; we still don’t know what to do – should we express our sympathy or should we rather behave as if the disabled were ‘en-abled’? This uncertainty derives from the helplessness we face when we meet people with mental or physical impairment.
For some people the very existence of illnesses or events resulting in disabilities undermines the idea of loving God, caring at all times about human beings. For many it’s the main argument against any religious faith, as God seems to be deaf to people’s cries and impassive regarding their fates. If God cared about each person, surely he wouldn’t allow them to suffer. I can understand this way of thinking – I myself feel shaken, disturbed and often helpless when I meet people affected by one kind of problem or another.
As we’ve just heard, in today’s gospel Jesus meets a disabled man, brought to him by other people. They’ve come with particular expectations, and with plans about how it should be done: ‘they asked him to lay his hands on him.’ Obviously they want the deaf man to be cured of his disability; as they themselves feel helpless, they turn to someone they believe can help. I’d say that there is a commendable aspect in their attitude – they take care of that disabled man; perhaps they’ve been doing so for years. Less commendable is that fact that they tell Jesus exactly what he has to do – it can suggest that their motives are not so completely pure and selfless.
The problem with someone else’s suffering, disability or pain is that their situation pulls us out of our comfort zone. In our perfect world everybody should be self-sufficient, and our relationships and interactions should be nice and smooth. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We meet people who are not always nice; we meet people with problematic and complicated lives, and sometimes those people rely on us more or less directly.
Generally speaking, we believe that we are good and loving people, and there is no reason to doubt that. It’s easy to love someone who’s attractive, unproblematic, strong, self-sufficient, and so on. But the real test of the authenticity of your love lies in those situations when we find ourselves confronted with somebody else’s long-term problems – problems requiring us to abandon our comfort zone. It would be great if God sorted out all the problems on his own, in a semi-magical way. But he’s chosen us to do so, to save us from being selfish monsters.