Reading the Bible from Below (2): Disability.

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2015-03-15 by Jeremy Clarke

Preacher: Veronica Zundel
15th March 2015
Readings: 2 Samuel 4:4, 2 Samuel 9:1-8, 12-13,
2 Samuel 1:19-20, 23-25 (referenced/quoted later in sermon)

2 Samuel 4:4

Saul’s son Jonathan had a son who was crippled in his feet. He was five years old when the news about Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel. His nurse picked him up and fled; and, in her haste to flee, it happened that he fell and became lame. His name was Mephiosheth.

2 Samuel 9:1-8, 12-13

1 David asked, “Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul to whom I may show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?”
2 Now there was a servant of the house of Saul whose name was Ziba, and he was summoned to David. The king said to him, “Are you Ziba?” And he said, “At your service!”
3 The king said, “Is there anyone remaining of the house of Saul to whom I may show the kindness of God?” Ziba said to the king, “There remains a son of Jonathan; he is crippled in his feet.”
4 The king said to him, “Where is he?” Ziba said to the king, “He is in the house of Machir son of Ammiel, at Lo-debar.”
5 Then King David sent and brought him from the house of Machir son of Ammiel, at Lo-debar.
6 Mephibosheth son of Jonathan son of Saul came to David, and fell on his face and did obeisance. David said, “Mephibosheth!” He answered, “I am your servant.”
7 David said to him, “Do not be afraid, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan; I will restore to you all the land of your grandfather Saul, and you yourself shall eat at my table always.”
8 He did obeisance and said, “What is your servant, that you should look upon a dead dog such as I?”

…11 Mephibosheth ate at David’s table, like one of the king’s sons.
12 Mephibosheth had a young son whose name was Mica. And all who lived in Ziba’s house became Mephibosheth’s servants.
13 Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, for he always ate at the king’s table.

It’s been hard to choose a Bible story for this sermon, which is the next in our series on ‘Reading the Bible from Below’. As it’s Mother’s Day — somehow I always end up preaching on Mother’s Day — I was tempted to choose a series of women, though none are actually mothers. There’s Chsah, Caleb’s daughter, who was given to her cousin in marriage as a battle prize, but had only desert land as her dowry, and went to her father to ask for land with springs — a favourite story when I was unwillingly single, and needed ‘springs’ to keep me going. Or there are the daughters of Zelophehad, who had no brothers, and who asked to inherit their father’s land and so changed the law of inheritance in Israel. I also love the healing of the woman bent double, in Luke 13, which to me stands for the calling of all women to stand upright, alongside men and not beneath their rule.

That last woman, of course, raises issues of disability too. For instance the way we talk over the head of someone in a wheelchair, as people must have talked over the head of that woman. So I’ve chosen instead to focus on disability, which is another issue close to my heart, for obvious reasons regarding my son’s disability, and my own long term disability as a sufferer of chronic depression.

I’ve been in dialogue on Facebook with a rising young poet who has spina bifida and hydrocephalus, and who is also now identifying as transgender. He has taught me a lot about the language we use, and the attitudes we have, towards people with disabilities, whether those are physical or learning disabilities or both. There used to be a regular programme on BBC Radio 4 on disability called No Triumph, No Tragedy, presented by Peter White who is blind, and that title expresses much of what the disability community is asking for from society. They don’t want to be used as what they call ‘inspiration porn’, with people marveling over how much they have achieved “despite” their disability, but neither do they want to be regarded as the victims of their disability, to be pitied and mollycoddled. As our son said to us recently, “I don’t want to be defined by my Asperger’s.” He’s right, it’s only one aspect of him, and perhaps, for the best of reasons, because we wanted to help him, we as his parents have sometimes been guilty of losing sight of all his abilities, which are manifold.

There is also the so-called ‘social model’ of disability, which holds that it is not people’s bodily or differences that disable them, but it is the society which is set up only for ‘abled’ people that excludes them. I’m old enough to remember the Year of the Disabled in 1981, and 34 years later we still have a long way to go in terms of making our infrastructure work for people of all abilities: I’ve heard of a work capability assessment centre which wouldn’t allow a wheelchair user to use the lift to get to the office which was on the first floor, and another that had their Braille signs placed ten feet up. And these are centres which exist specifically to assess disabled people.

At first sight, the story we’ve heard today seems to press all the wrong buttons in terms of political correctness about disability. Which is hardly surprising given that it’s nearly 3000 years old. David appears to be acting as a magnanimous victor, dispensing favours to the needy, while Mephibosheth fawns at his feet and calls himself nothing but a dead dog. It seems an odd choice for talking about ‘Reading the Bible from Below’.

But I think there may be other ways of reading it. Perhaps we could put it in its context in the Old Testament. Last week Ruth gave us a corker of a sermon about the sacrificial system and how Jesus puts an end to it. It was an idea that resonated strongly with me as I’m rather fond of the book of Hebrews, which is saying very much the same thing. Now the Pentateuch is full of instructions about animal sacrifices, and which are appropriate for which purposes, and through these instructions runs one clear command: you should give to God the best of what you have, not the leavings. God doesn’t want the wall-eyed goat or the lamb born with three legs, but the finest of the flock, the one from whom you were hoping to get the highest profit. You are to bring into the Temple only what is perfect.

Alongside this goes a ban on anyone with a physical disability entering the Temple courts and worshipping there. Not even a man whose testicles had been crushed — ouch! — could go in to the Temple. God’s space was a space only for the whole and the righteous; and disability was regarded as evidence that either the disabled person or their parents had sinned in some way, as we see in the disciples’ question in John 6 about the man born blind. It was essentially a doctrine of karma.

Looked at from this background, and bearing in mind that in the ancient Jewish state, king and Temple were closely bound together, this could be not so much a story about a powerful man’s great magnanimity, but a story about an exclusive system opening the gates and letting in those who had formerly been excluded. So this is, perhaps, a story which foreshadows the end of the exclusive, perfectionist Temple and sacrifical system that Ruth was talking about last week; about breaking down the barriers between the ‘clean’ abled people and the ‘unclean’ disabled people that was set up by the Temple rules.

However, I want to add a warning word about the terms ‘inclusion’ and ‘inclusiveness’. The trouble with ‘inclusion’ is that it has an air of “We the privileged are gracious enough to invite you to our party’. What disabled people want, what gay people want, what women want, is not to be let in to the existing structures, but to be equal, to have a say in changing those structures so that they don’t exclude in the first place. Mephibosheth’s story, after all, is not one about his receiving crumbs from the king’s table, but about being called to sit at that table and eat on equal terms with the king, treated as “one of the king’s sons”. The language of equality is much more welcome to those on the margins of society, which includes disabled people, than the language of inclusion.

This is also a story about enemy love. Mephibosheth is the grandson of Saul, the king who preceded David and who had done his utmost to prevent David replacing him as king. He didn’t have to do this; the rules of war didn’t demand it. But he wanted to make peace with the dynasty he had defeated, and for whom he had lamented in the beautiful poem of 2 Samuel 1:

2 Samuel 1: 19-20, 23-25

19 Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!
20 Tell it not in Gath,
proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon;
or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice,
the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult….

23 ..Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!
In life and in death they were not divided;
they were swifter than eagles,
they were stronger than lions.
24 O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
who clothed you with crimson, in luxury,
who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.
25 How the mighty have fallen
in the midst of the battle!

David has chosen, not to denigrate Saul or his family, not to boast about his victory over them, but to praise them and to feed their outcast descendant. As Paul said in Romans 12:20: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” I know this is followed by “for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads”, but I think that rather than being vindictive, Paul is talking about metaphorical coals of shame and cleansing — like the burning coal that the angel in Isaiah’s vision puts on his lips to cleanse him.

This may be still some way from ‘Reading the Bible from Below’, but consider why this story is actually recorded. Note what David says about his project to rehabilitate Saul’s family: “Is there anyone remaining of the house of Saul to whom I may show the kindness of God?” (italics mine). This isn’t about what a benefactor David is, but about a God who loved us while we were still enemies, and who has a particular care for the blind, the deaf, the lame, the despairing. We don’t see David patronizing or pitying Mephibosheth — who is, after all, a victim of war, having been dropped by his nurse as she was fleeing from his family’s defeat. Rather, David is trying to create a new relationship between himself and his forrmer enemy, a relationship of eating together and listening to each other. And this is not about charity, it is about justice: David makes sure Mephibosheth, who by now has a family of his own, has economic independence, by giving him back all the land his grandfather owned, and also giving him household staff, which makes him a person of status.

But what do we make of Mephibosheth’s double ‘obeisance’ and his description of himself as nothing but a dead dog? We could surmise that, having been formerly excluded from society, he has low self-esteem. Or we could see this as the ‘proper’ way to greet a king. But I think that, like the prodigal son with his grovelling speech to his father, Mephibosheth is expecting to be in trouble. He is, after all, part of the family who tormented David for years, and what else can a summons to the king mean but that he’s about to be punished? Instead of which, again like the prodigal son, he fed lavishly and showered with gifts.

I think this story lets us hear one of those ‘hidden voices’ in the Bible: the experience of a disabled young adult from nearly 3000 years ago, whose story was recorded because a victorious warrior gave him an honoured place in society. I find it particularly interesting that Mephibosheth’s own words are preserved: the writer could have just given us what David said, but he gives Mephibosheth a voice. There’s a hint here of Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians that “those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour” — not that those with disabilities are less honourable, but that they are certainly socially and economically excluded and underprivileged — more than ever in our society of benefit sanctions, where terminally ill people are passed as fit for work and their benefits taken away.

Mephibosheth however received free food every day, sitting at top table, and didn’t have to do any unpaid work at Poundland to earn it. I wonder how much David learned from his dinner guest about what it was like living with a disability. I wonder how much the DWP would learn if they actually listened to disabled people instead of just measuring their economic potential.

I’d like to end with a personal note. I’ve experienced chronic depression for nearly 40 years now, although the last few years have been much better and I can see a day when I might come off medication after 22 years on it. It wasn’t easy bringing up a child who himself had an ‘invisible’ disability, and I couldn’t have done it without this church and of course without Ed. Often in those years I had a sense of identification with Mephibosheth, and felt “crippled in both feet” by my depression. It affected my ability to succeed as a writer and as a mother, and although in many ways I am among the privileged: white, middle class, educated, financially comfortable — I sometimes felt excluded by society in other ways. The writers with a more stable emotional life and more confidence seemed to get more books written and published, even if they weren’t as good writers. And the other mothers in the playground rarely talk to the one whose kid is different and seen as a troublemaker, so I had to make friends with the mums who had awkward kids like mine. Not trying to call out pity or admiration here, just telling it like it is.

So this story was special to me, because it said to me that amidst the struggles of involuntary singleness, depression, and then parenting a child with special needs, I could still “feast at the King’s table every day”, and though I have some problems with the language of God as king, this was a comforting and encouraging metaphor.

One approach to the Bible I find helpful is about finding our own story in it, which is one of the reasons why I gravitate to neglected women’s stories. So if I may return to the Mother’s Day thing, perhaps today we can think particularly of mothers — and fathers — who live with their own or their children’s disabilities, as well as those who are barred from becoming parents by disability or infertility. And let’s be more aware how, in the way Jesus treated the outcasts, feasting at the king’s table is now the place for all the excluded, the marginalized, the oppressed.

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