One in five children and young people have an additional need or disability of some kind, and for many their additional/special needs or disabilities are lifelong and so continue into their adult life. It is easy for children, youth, and families workers, as well as church leaders, to be uncertain about how to appropriately support people with special needs and disabilities, with it being common to see churches either totally ignoring this part of our community or overwhelming them.
It is helpful to see what Jesus modelled for us when it comes to relationships with people who have disabilities, what he did that we could follow. As Jesus himself said in John 13:15 “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
Jesus was accessible
There are many stories of encounters with Jesus throughout the Gospels, including people with a wide range of special needs and disabilities meeting him; indeed 25 of the 34 miracles recorded in the Gospels involve Jesus interacting with people with disabilities.* In many cases, given the culture at the time, this was extraordinary. Take for example the man with leprosy in Luke 5:12-14, someone who would have been seen as unclean and to be avoided by people at the time.
Jesus met with people where they were, in the street, in the market, by the lake, wherever people gathered. He didn’t expect people to come and find him in the temple, he went out to them. And when he met with them, he connected with them physically—he touched them, reached out to them, he was fully accessible to them.
And Jesus gave time to people, he respected their dignity, he didn’t rush their encounter with him. Take for example the story in Mark 7:31-35 of the man described as deaf and mute. He was brought to Jesus by others, but Jesus took him to one side away from the crowd and then spent time with him, healing him.
So, Jesus was accessible, interacted with people, went to where they were, connected with them physically, gave time to people, and respected them.
Jesus also listened and didn’t assume.
Just because someone came to Jesus, or was brought to him, who had special needs or disabilities, he didn’t automatically assume that what they wanted was healing. He often would spend time asking them what they wanted from him. In Mark 10:46-52 we see Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus, a man who was blind. Once again Jesus is on the road, and he heard a man crying out to him “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” There was a crowd going along with Jesus, but he heard the man and stopped, and very importantly, he asked the man a question “What do you want me to do for you?”
The man was blind, the crowd must have wondered why Jesus asked this question, but Jesus didn’t assume that he knew what the man wanted. The man himself then answered “Lord, I want to see.” and Jesus gave him sight. It was Bartimaeus’ choice.
In Matthew 8:5-13, a Roman Centurion came up to Jesus. The Romans were the invading force in Israel, hated by most, but Jesus took the time to listen to the Centurion, to hear what the man wanted from him. He wanted Jesus to heal his servant, who was not with him but at home. Jesus listened, and then responded.
So, Jesus took time, and listed to people. He didn’t assume that because they had special needs or disabilities that they wanted healing; Jesus asked.Jesus thought first about a person’s salvation
In the story we’ve just looked at regarding the Roman Centurion and his servant, Jesus comments about the faith of the Centurion, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith” (Matthew 8:10). Jesus was often primarily interested in the faith of the person, this was most important to him, rather than their special needs or disabilities.
A little later in Matthew’s Gospel (9:27-31) Jesus encounters two men who were blind. Again, Jesus treats them with respect and dignity, allowing them to follow him indoors where he could spend time with them, listening to them. Jesus asked about their faith, and only when they had answered that they did indeed believe in him did he then heal them.
In Luke 5:17-26 Jesus is speaking to a room full of people when some friends bring a man who couldn’t walk to see him. As they couldn’t get in through the door they lowered the man through the roof in front of Jesus. Jesus’ first action was to forgive the man for his sins, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven.’” Only after the Pharisees and teachers of the law challenged him about his actions did Jesus then heal the man, to demonstrate his authority. (See also my blog post, ‘Faith More Important Than Healing’)
All who believe in Jesus are full members of his kingdom. This is true for anyone, regardless of their additional needs or disabilities, who believe in him. John 3:16 doesn’t use the word “whoever” accidentally!
So, Jesus thought first about the eternal salvation of people before their physical or mental healing. Maybe there is a lesson there for us too in how we view people, all people, and what we see as the primary purpose of ministry; whether it is with children, young people, families or adults (or everyone together!) and whether there are special needs or disabilities, or not…
In Matthew 28:19, Jesus tells us to “Go and make disciples of all nations…” of all peoples; the message is clear, this includes everybody, and Jesus in his ministry showed us how!
Connect with Mark Arnold at www.theadditionalneedsblogfather.com, www.additionalneedsalliance.org.uk, www.urbansaints.org/additionalneeds. To find out more about how Mark and his work can help you, contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or @Mark_J_Arnold
*Barrier-Free Friendships by Joni Eareckson Tada and Steve Jensen, “Imitating Christ in Friendship”, Zondervan Publishing House, 1997. p. 41.