Yet I believe we err if we think that Jesus’ parables are merely nice illustrative stories that point to some “spiritual” meaning. We must also recognize that the content and direction of the parables would have often shocked his first century Palestinian audience. Jesus used these simple stories with very ordinary language to express provocative, sometimes subversive ideas of what God’s reality is like. By often finishing his parables without a definitive ending, Jesus challenged his hearers to open themselves to new horizons of thought and life.
When we enter into authentic friendship with people with disabilities, our worldviews and preconceived notions of humanity are confronted and transformed.
As an example, take the parable of the woman who added yeast to the dough to make it leavened. Usually when we hear this story today we think of a quaint image of a woman baking bread in the kitchen, illustrating how even our small actions contribute to the glory of the kingdom. Yet when we can look at it from a perspective of a person in Jesus’ time, we see that Jesus is comparing very profane images – women, yeast, leaven – with the Holy One himself – God. Through this juxtaposition of metaphors, Jesus challenges us to radically re-think how we envision God and his kingdom.
The parable of the mustard seed functions in a very similar way. While we think of the mustard seed as a symbol of our littleness growing into something grand, a hearer of Jesus would have been stumped by referencing God’s kingdom with a pesky weed (i.e. a mustard bush) that a farmer would try to eradicate as soon as he saw it.
Thus Jesus used parables to get people to think about God and his reign in a completely new and life changing way. He challenged his people to envision a community where the boundaries between who was in and out were more semi-permeable than rigidly opaque. By using images of life that were seen as corrupt or profane to reference God’s kingdom, Jesus invited people to re-imagine holiness and status.
I have found this to be analogous with the way in which my perception of people with developmental disabilities has been transformed. Through my relationships with core members – those in L’Arche with a cognitive disability – I began to not only recognize them as persons but also to come to a new vision of what it meant to be a human being. In a certain way people with disabilities became for me “living parables” – people with a mission from God to radically change all my notions of life and faith and humanity.
Now a clear warning is called for here: by speaking of people with disabilities as parables by no means do I wish to give the impression that they are mere objects for our spiritual enrichment.
On the contrary, the presence of the person with a disability does not call us to admiration of them but relationship with them. They are living parables, fellow creatures who wish to draw us into their orbit in order that friendship and true mutuality might happen.
It is when we enter into authentic friendship with people with disabilities that our worldviews and preconceived notions of humanity will be confronted and transformed. From them we discover that being a person does not necessarily require rationality, autonomy or productivity, but community, relationship and receptivity.
While we might want to focus our parables of the Kingdom of God upon themes of strength, independence or knowledge, people with cognitive disabilities embody for us a Reign of God that emphasizes interdependence, friendship, and radical grace.
For this kind of transformation to happen we must physically see and hear people with developmental disabilities among us. Even though many of them may be unable to literally speak, their presence demands that our ears be attentive to their language and our eyes attuned to their sometimes very different bodies.
By welcoming the presence of the person with a developmental disability among us we will learn real attention to the other – the essence of true prayer. This will enable us not only to come to a greater understanding of the gift of the person with a disability and what they have to teach us, but also assist us in listening in a new way to the radical good news that Jesus proclaims to us today.
So may the Kingdom of God be like… a mutual friendship with a person with a profound intellectual disability… or the beauty of a person with a walker…or a smile that stumps a sermon… or a cheer that interrupts a solemnity.
Let anyone with ears to hear listen!
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Companion post: Parables of God's reality
Jason Greig was a Student Associate with Anabaptist Disabilities Network when he wrote this article in 2011.