During his life on earth Jesus challenged the accepted culture of his time, often creating a societal and political storm as he did so. He was not what many expected the Messiah to be, even though there had been plenty of prophesy that provided more than enough detail of what to expect from him. He was unusual, edgy, on the margins, drawing to himself those who could be described in the same way. Whether ordinary fisherman, outcasts of their time such as tax collectors and sex workers, or people who were sick or disabled, Jesus mixed with people that the establishment elite refused to engage with (at least publicly!)
When we look at where Jesus came from and what happened to him, perhaps it provides us with a clearer picture of who he is, challenging us to think about how he lived, and how he might challenge today’s culture.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation describes absolute poverty in the UK as “… where households have less than 60% of the median income.”
As starts in life go, they don’t get a whole lot poorer than Jesus. Born on the road, with only a stable available to provide his mother with a small amount of privacy and comfort. His first bed the feeding trough used for the animals, his first visitors some dirty young shepherds.
Jesus’ family were not from the wealthy elite, they were a young couple who were just starting out on life themselves and who would have experienced absolute poverty. Joseph is described in Matthew 13 as a carpenter, “Is not this [meaning Jesus] the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary?” (v. 55), but he was more likely to be a builder or stone mason. The Greek word ‘tekton’, translated here as carpenter, is more accurately translated to mean craftsman or builder, a trade Jesus would have followed his earthly father into, but not one which would have attracted much wealth.
It was a simple life, a hard life, that Jesus would have known as a child and as he grew into adolescence and adulthood. But poverty wasn’t the only challenge that this young family faced.
Once Jesus’ birth (or, more specifically, the birth of the child foretold by prophesy and by the wise men) had come to the notice of the local tyrant of the time, King Herod, he gave orders to kill all small boys in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:13-18). Mary, Joseph and Jesus were forced to flee to Egypt to take refuge there, where they remained for perhaps two years or so until Herod had died (commentators are unclear about the duration of their stay in Egypt) before returning to Nazareth in Israel.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees defines them as follows: “A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”
Jesus was part of a particular social group; boys aged two or under born in or around Bethlehem. His life was in danger of violence and death if they stayed in Israel, so they fled. By today’s definition, Jesus was a child refugee.
As Jesus started his ministry, he left the family home and wandered through the region. It is likely that he stayed in the homes of his friends and disciples as he spent this three-years in ministry, but it seems clear that during this time he had no home of his own. He himself comments in Luke’s Gospel, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Luke 9:58. In saying this he was describing both his own homelessness on earth and his separation from his heavenly home, as well as the expected lot of those who followed him.
Shelter, the homeless charity, describes being homeless as follows: “The definition of homelessness means not having a home. You are homeless if you have nowhere to stay and are living on the streets, but you can be homeless even if you have a roof over your head. You count as homeless if you are staying with friends or family, staying in a hostel, night shelter, or Bed & Breakfast accommodation.”
It seems unlikely that Jesus slept on the streets, but in other ways he appears to meet the current criteria for homelessness.
The current definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010 says that, “You’re disabled… if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.”
Jesus certainly met and indeed healed/cured or restored the faculties of many people with disabilities and additional needs during his three-year ministry; indeed the overwhelming majority of his recorded miracles fall into this category, but was Jesus himself disabled in the final days of his life on earth? Did he experience mental health challenges? Did he carry the marks of his acquired physical disability with him when he ascended to heaven? Big questions, but there are some clues that can help us, especially in the Gospel of the good Doctor, Luke.
As Jesus prays on the Mount of Olives, he prays with such anxiety and earnestness that he seems to experience hematohidrosis, the sweating of blood. Luke describes the event… “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” Luke 22:44. While hematohidrosis is a temporary phenomenon, it does highlight the extreme mental anxiety and stress that Jesus was experiencing at the time.
Jesus is subsequently beaten so badly that he could not be recognised due to his condition; horrendous injuries inflicted by whip, fist and thorn. And then we reach the cross, where Jesus’ hands and feet had iron nails driven through them causing unimaginable damage and pain as his whole body weight hung on these wrecked appendages.
The shock to his body of all of these outrages probably caused hypovolemic shock, causing fluid to gather in the sack around the heart and around the lungs. After Jesus died a Roman soldier thrust a spear through Jesus’ side, probably piercing both the lungs and the heart, and blood and water came from his side just as was recorded by John, “… one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.” John 19:34
After the resurrection, we read that Jesus appeared to his disciples and other followers several times. In John’s account of Jesus’ encounter with Thomas, he describes how Jesus still bore the wounds of his crucifixion, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop doubting and believe.” John 20:27.
Luke provides us with the story of the encounter with two of Jesus’ followers on the road to Emmaus, identified as happening on the same day as the resurrection, “Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem… Jesus himself came up and walked along with them.” Luke 24:13, 15b. Jesus is able to walk with them, seemingly untroubled by the trauma that his feet, and indeed his whole body, had endured.
So, while Jesus’ resurrected body clearly carried the marks of his suffering, he seems from the accounts given to have been free from the physical pain and disability that would have ordinarily been expected to have accompanied them. As Jesus ascended to heaven a short time later, he carried those scars with him and bears them still; not as a sign of weakness but as signs of his love for us all.
As the prophet Isaiah had foretold,“He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.” Isaiah 53:3. In this world where the poor suffer at the hands of the rich, where child refugees wash up on the shores of the Mediterranean and drown in the English Channel, where homelessness and especially the ‘sofa surfing’ that Jesus experienced is on the increase, and where people with disabilities are shunned or treated like scroungers… In this world where some would pull up the drawbridge to ‘Fortress Britain’ to prevent those in need entering, and Trump’s wall aimed to do the same in the USA…. In this world where the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, the disadvantaged are mocked and ridiculed… In this world, Jesus Christ would, and does, fit right in.
Whether Jesus would classify as disabled or not, he surely knew poverty, experienced being a refugee, was homeless, and understood suffering and pain like no-one else ever has or will. That is why, whatever our situation, whatever our story, whatever the pain we carry, we have a saviour who has been there, and is there with us now in the midst of it all. He gets it, and he loves us.
Hallelujah, what a saviour!
2nd August 2018, updated 10th December 2021
Bible passage used in this blog post: Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
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