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Figuring the Disfigured in Zhuangzi and the Gospel of Mark: A Comparative Analysis

Author: Travis Allyn Myers
Published: 2020

MD 11

Article Type: Peer Reviewed Article

By engaging in comparative textual analysis, this paper explores narrative and rhetorical elements related to the concept of shame in the Gospel of Mark and Zhuangzi, an ancient Chinese philosophical text. I examine three stories from each work, all of which feature disabled people in some way, paying particular attention to how the characters function in the stories in light of broader themes. In this comparative exercise, resources from outside the Christian tradition thus contribute to Christian theological reflection on the topic of shame.

In recent decades, honor and shame have received increasing attention by Christian missiologists, particularly emphasizing their social nature within the cultural context of biblical texts. Notions of these terms as inherently social (in their various forms) from the field of cultural anthropology greatly influence this body of research among theologians.1 Though shame in popular English language usage more commonly refers to one’s feeling ashamed of personal behavior and relates to personal guilt, within the realm of cultural anthropology and, more recently, theological studies, scholars tend to emphasize the social aspect of shame.2 Shame is thus a categorical term, encompassing related social phenomena such as ridicule, humiliation, stigma, and ostracism.3 Given this semantic realm of meaning, it is often appropriate to point to shame as present implicitly, if not linguistically explicit, within the socio-cultural environment of a text. 4

With this backdrop of the cultural-anthropological category of shame in mind, I employ a comparative methodology to examine a trio of texts from the biblical Gospel of Mark with selections from Zhuangzi 莊子, a philosophical work from the Warring States period of Chinese history (475–221 BCE). All of the short episodes I analyze feature individuals with physical disabilities. In particular, I address the following questions with each set of stories: Why specifically include stories with disabled people? Who is speaking to whom in each episode, and how do they refer to disability within their dialogue? How do these individuals rhetorically function, specifically in light of the cultural framework of social shame? What are larger themes represented in the stories, and how does the representation of people with physical disabilities relate to the presentation of those themes?

In Zhuangzi’s “Symbol of Complete Virtue” (De chong fu 德充符) chapter, five of the six stories depict disfigured people, and the final account includes two philosophers debating the relationship of virtue, body, and wholeness, essentially summarizing the themes of the chapter’s previous stories. I look at three of the stories with disfigured characters in detail: Shen Tujia the Footless Man (Shen Tujia Wuzhe 申徒嘉兀者 ), Shushan the Footless Man (Shushan Wuqi 叔山無趾), and the Two Disfigured Counselors from Lu and Wei. I am especially interested in the rhetorical function of these characters and the relationship between their disabilities and shame.

In the biblical gospel accounts, much of the public life of Jesus involves healing sick people, some of whom had experienced disfigurement, similar to those portrayed in the Zhuangzi stories. I evaluate three such stories from the Gospel of Mark: the Leprous Man (1:40–45), the Man with the Withered Hand (3:1–12), and Blind Bartimaeus (10:46–52). Each contains a healing element and contributes to revealing the identity of Jesus gradually throughout the book of Mark.5 How does the text describe the respective characters and their healings, and how does this relate to shame?

After first analyzing each set of stories on their own, I then engage in comparative theological inquiry. Comparative theology’s growth as a distinct approach to theology in recent decades stems from the “problem and promise” of the increasingly pluralized world in which we live.6 Comparative theologians recognize the presence of wisdom in other philosophical and religious traditions and draw from these non-Christian resources to inspire and benefit Christian theological discourse. By learning from the texts, practices, rituals, and persons of other traditions on their terms and within their own frameworks, comparative theologians attempt to discover theological insights that are only possible through the uniqueness of the comparative encounter. This approach “leads us to notice and appreciate important areas of agreement—and difference—across different philosophical, cultural, and political traditions.”7 Finally, I briefly point to additional resources which overlap with the material in this paper, to which one might turn for further research.

Figuring the Disfigured in Zhuangzi’s “Symbol of Complete Virtue” Chapter

The purported author of Zhuangzi, Zhuang Zhou (369–286 BCE), lived during the Warring States period of Chinese history (475–221 BCE),8 though considerable debate exists surrounding authorship, dating, and textual development.9 The text of thirty-three chapters contains a hodgepodge of disconnected narratives and philosophical musings and includes diverse literary elements: myth, parable, poetry, didactic, polemic, and debate. Over the centuries, Zhuangzi became influential in the development of Daoist philosophy, Daoist religion, and Chan (Zen) Buddhism, and it is universally regarded as a classic of Chinese literature. Much of the text incorporates humor in its stories, at times irreverently so, poking fun at existing philosophical ideas and figures, as well as cultural and religious practices, of its own time.10 Though three terms for “shame” appear elsewhere in Zhuangzi,11 they do not occur in the stories I analyze below. Part of my task, then, is to develop “shame eyes,” to nurture the skill of seeing the social elements of shame even when not explicitly stated in the language of the text.

Zhuangzi Story 1: Shen Tujia the Footless (6.2)

The first story is the second episode in the “De chong fu” chapter and centers on the dynamic between two disciples studying from a master teacher. Their introduction reads, “Shen Tujia was one whose foot had been cut off [as punishment for a crime], and with Zichan of [the state of] Zheng, he studied with Bohun Wuren.”12 As in many of Zhuangzi’s stories, the names of the characters often serve to help the reader understand more about the characters themselves. In other words, characters’ names are not necessarily incidental. For the first student, Shen is a standard surname and can mean “to stretch out,” “to extend one’s meaning,” or “to warn/admonish.”13 The given name is more significant for his identity, as Tujia can refer to either a convict or disciple who is praiseworthy.14 Both possibilities are actually relevant to who he is, past and present, as we see more fully as the story continues.

The second student, Zichan (d. 522 BCE), is a known historical figure, a statesman and philosopher from the Spring and Autumn period (771–476 BCE).15 His name itself is not as indicative of who he is and how he functions in the story as much as his status as an official. Status is at the very heart of the discussion between the two students. The name of the third character, the teacher Bohun Wuren, literally means “Earl of Confusion without people,” which does not exactly inspire confidence in his abilities as a teacher.16 He is mentioned only at the beginning of the story, and other than Shen Tujia appealing to how he has benefited from the master’s teaching and the years he has spent under his tutelage, the master himself does not feature in the story. The primary conflict is between the two students as they try to understand one another. In some sense, we might say that the master exists in order to provide the two students with a context, a setting within which to wrestle with the relationship between status and virtue.

The remaining meaningful introductory detail from the opening sentences is the fact that Shen Tujia, at some point in the past, had a foot removed. The text does not directly state the reason. It is possible that it was due to an accident or some other irrelevant, unknown reason. However, the word for footless used here (兀 wu) does imply punishment for a crime.17 And so, it is likely that Zichan’s attitude about their differences in status stem not only from Shen Tujia’s physical appearance, per se, but from Zichan’s assumptions regarding the cause of the missing foot and the stigma of being a convict.

Their conflict begins:

Zichan said to Shen Tujia, “If I go out first, then you stop and wait; if you go out first, then I’ll wait.” The next day, they again studied together in the same room, sitting at the same mat. Zichan [again] said to Shen Tujia, “If I go out first, then you stop and wait; if you go out first, then I’ll wait. At present, I’m about to go out, so are you able to stop and wait like I said or not? Moreover, if you see one [such as myself] who is a political officer and you do not defer to me, do you [presume to be] on the same level?”

Though they are both students, Zichan attempts to set some ground rules for how he and Shen Tujia ought to exit the premises. One could argue that Zichan simply proposes that they take turns. He does not initially suggest that he, as one of higher social status, should always go first. A reader can even imagine that he is merely politely considering the logistics of how Shen Tujia hobbles along cumbersomely and that they cannot both go through the teacher’s door at the same time. But then Zichan explicitly references his position as an officer, directly questioning whether one such as Shen Tujia ought to consider himself to be an equal. The latter does not take the question rhetorically.

Shen Tujia replied, “At our teacher’s gate, if there is certainly a political official here, is it really like this [as you have said]? You take delight in your being one of political office and others [needing to come] after you. I have heard it said, ‘When a mirror is clear, then dust and dirt do not settle [on it]; if they do settle, then it is no longer clear. When someone is together at the place of a virtuous person for a long time, then he has no error.’ Now you are one who seeks to be important, to be the teacher; but when you speak out like this, are you not also in error?”

After acknowledging Zichan’s focus on the outward respect due an official, Shen Tujia’s response points to the error in this way of thinking. His anecdote about a lack of dust “settling” on the mirror uses the character 止 (zhi), and it is likely that he refers back to Zichan’s earlier statement about who should “stop and wait” (also 止 zhi).18 Shen Tujia wishes to emphasize their similarities as they both strive for internal improvement in the company of the teacher. Zichan, however, cannot see past their outward differences. saying about Shen Tujia, “You are fully like this [in your appearance]; similar to Yao, you strive to be good. Appraising your own virtue is not enough as a means of self-examination, is it?’” Earlier, Zichan pointed to himself as a person of high social status in order to distinguish their relative positions. Here, he directly treats his fellow student condescendingly, simultaneously affirming Shen Tujia’s efforts to become virtuous and downplaying such striving as an insufficient endeavor. Shen Tujia’s final statement gets at the heart of how they intrinsically understand virtue differently.

Shen Tujia said, “Those who describe their own errors as not being their fault are many. Those who describe their own errors as being their fault are few. Only those who have virtue know there is nothing they are able to do about it, and yet they are still contented with it as their fate. If one wanders in the center of Master Archer Yi’s drawing a bow, in the exact center, the center is the target. As this is so, one’s not being in the center is due to fate. Because they have both their feet, people laugh a lot at my not having both feet. I [used to] become furious and get angry, but upon arriving at Master’s place, I [have been able to] discard [my anger] and return [to my old self]. I don’t know whether or not Master’s purifying me is due to my being good. I joined with Master, wandering for the past 19 years, and I did not yet experience knowing I was footless. Now you and I joined together to wander in the inner body, and you label me due to my outer body. Is that not wrong?”

The thrust of Shen Tujia’s argument rests on his understanding of what he can control and potentially change contrasted with what he cannot. After many years of guidance, he learned to accept the parameters of his existence (命 ming), the limits of his uniquely disfigured body, to the point that he no longer saw his lack of feet as something that mattered at all. His anger toward those that ridiculed him subsided as he became a person focused on internal development (形骸之內 xing hai zhi nei). As a result of Shen Tujia’s personal disclosure, Zichan appears genuinely convicted as the story concludes, “Zichan was astonished, changing his countenance and further his appearance, saying, ‘You do not have to defer to me after all.’”19

Though the text does not indicate that Zichan experienced inner transformation, it does specify that his outward appearance changed. This is interesting given how the story started, emphasizing the two students’ external differences in appearance and status. For Zichan, the ceiling for one’s becoming virtuous was predicated on their starting point. In his estimation, someone like Shen Tujia, whose external form was not “whole,” had a limited capacity for moral improvement. In hearing Shen Tujia’s actual experience of internal moral transformation, at a minimum Zichan chose to treat his fellow student more equitably.

The inclusion of this story serves to highlight different cultural understandings of virtue (德 de) as the characters rhetorically function as antithetical symbols in the narrative. Though this story does not define virtue, the concept plays a pivotal role in their disagreement. We observe that Zichan initially judged Shen Tujia’s potential for virtuous development based on outward appearance and their differences in social status. We also see an inner/outer dynamic present, revealing that there are existing conflicting ideas and practices of virtue with which the story’s participants are familiar. The following two stories similarly incorporate elements related to virtue within the context of disfigured characters’ experiences.

Zhuangzi Story 2: Shushan the Footless (6.3)

My second story to analyze, the third episode in the “De chong fu” chapter, shares some elements with the previous one. It begins with another disfigured individual who experienced a similar kind of mutilation as criminal punishment.

In the state of Lu, there was one whose foot had been cut off [as a punishment for a crime], Footless Uncle Mountain. He sought after the lessons of Zhongni. Zhongni said, “Because you were not prudent before, your violating the law caused a misfortune like this. Although now you have come [to study], what do you hope to learn?”

Footless said, “[Certainly] it is my own carelessness with my affairs and treating my body lightly that caused me to lose my foot. But now I have come [to study with you], as if possessing a respect for materially having feet and seeking to maintain what is still whole. There is nothing Heaven does not cover; there is nothing earth does not hold up. As I took the Master to be Heaven and earth, how could I know that the Master would [treat me] like this?”

As in the first story above, the characters’ identities are highly significant to the unraveling of this narrative. The first character’s name (Shushan Wuzhi 叔山無趾) literally means “Footless Uncle Mountain.” “Footless” is presumably just physically descriptive, not his original given name. It is telling, though, that as the story develops below, he is continually called Wuzhi, “Footless,” as a (pejorative) nickname. Though it was likely not his given name, physical appearance (and all of its associated assumptions related to his criminal behavior and therefore his enduring character) becomes his primary moniker. The foot imagery in these introductory lines collectively overstate the case in painting the picture of the first character as chiefly defined by his being footless.20

Two other characters are significant for how the story unfolds. Zhongni is a secondary name for Kongzi (Confucius).21 Here and elsewhere in Zhuangzi, the character Kongzi represents Confucian ideas, practices, and tradition, what the historical figure might have espoused, though often repurposed for the text’s own rhetorical goals. Lao Dan serves as a similar rhetorical face, though as a functional foil, one presenting an alternative to Confucius’ approach and teaching.22

As the story begins, Zhongni questions Footless’s past behavior, specifically his lack of circumspection which led to his punishment and current physical condition. Zhongni’s further query, where he asks Footless what he intends to learn, must have conveyed a sense of doubt in his capacity for learning. Or at least that’s how Footless received Zhongni’s words. Upon acknowledging his own culpability of past actions and referencing his body, he then states what he desired to learn from Zhongni, to go beyond the physical to preserve what is still whole (全 quan). The text does not state what exactly Footless means by “whole,” but he clearly does not merely mean his physical body. His disappointment in Zhongni’s treatment of him is precisely because the teacher initially and primarily viewed him as a person via his physical state. Footless then references Heaven and earth as taking care of all beings, the implication being that they do not judge, but foster the existence of all within their purview. When Footless equates his expectations for a teacher with this description of Heaven and earth, Zhongni fails Footless before they even begin.

The story continues, “Kongzi said, ‘I acted rudely. Why don’t you, Sir, come inside? I invite you to share what you have learned.’ Footless departed. Kongzi said, ‘Disciples, strive to do what is beyond your ability! Sir Footless, one without a foot, devoted himself in this way to retracing and mending what he did before and departing from crime. How much more should people of complete virtue [do likewise]?’” Zhongni, now called Kongzi, realizes that they did not get off on the right foot, so to speak, and he apologizes to rekindle their relationship. Footless, apparently offended beyond reconciliation, departs, leaving Kongzi with his other disciples. Hoping to turn the negative encounter into a positive pedagogical moment for the others, Kongzi praises Footless’ desire to overcome his criminal past and better himself. As Kongzi exhorts his disciples to go and do likewise, he continues to identify Footless primarily according to past mistakes. At the same time, he further reveals his thinking about wholeness by stating that all of those present are already “people of complete virtue” (全德之人 quan de zhi ren).

Kongzi’s praise of Footless to his disciples sounds good on the surface, but the reader benefits from an additional description of virtue as Footless goes to visit with Lao Dan.

Footless [had gone to] speak with Lao Dan, saying, “Kong Qiu has not yet arrived at being a completed person, has he? How do his disciples consider imitating you to be the same as [imitating] him? For a long time, he has sought the reputation of being unusually cunning, but does he not know that a completed person considers this to be the shackles and handcuffs of the self?”

Lao Dan said, “Why did you not straighten him out—to take life and death as being of one order and to take what is possible and impossible as united—to untie his shackles? Could you do it?”

Footless said, “If Heaven deformed him in this way, how could I undo it?”

As Footless vents his frustration to another teacher, Lao Dan, he directly claims that Kong Qiu (Kongzi) is not yet a complete person (至人 zhiren). In doing so, he also draws a distinction between the two teachers’ approaches, accusing Kongzi of being shackled (桎梏 zhigu) by the limits of his own thinking. This imagery is blatantly penal in nature, contrasting what we know about Footless’ history with how Footless and Lao Dan now discuss Kongzi, and their penal language persists throughout the remainder of the passage. Lao Dan speculates as to whether Footless could help Kongzi by untying him from this binding (解其桎梏 jie qi zhigu), by showing him a fuller understanding of virtue and what constitutes true completeness. In reply, Footless appeals to Heaven, contending that Kongzi’s current incompleteness is due to a kind of punishment from Heaven. His retort references penal mutilation (刑 xing), which acts as a rhetorical bookend with how he himself was described at the beginning of the story, culminating the whole episode with a rather unabashed declaration.

While the first story above includes two students debating virtue while their teacher is largely absent, this story spotlights a physically disabled student discussing virtue with two different teachers. The two teachers, then, represent two different ways of understanding and embracing virtue. Kongzi views Footless’ capacity for virtuous development (or lack thereof, from his perspective) as largely dependent upon physical ability. In Footless’s discussion with Lao Dan, they essentially conclude that Kongzi is, in fact, the one who is not “whole,” due to his limited comprehension of virtue. For Footless, though his physical disability stays with him via his nickname, he does not allow it to define the whole of who he is or who he can become. Both intrinsic value and intrinsic virtue lie beyond the physical.

Zhuangzi Story 3: The Two Disfigured Counselors of Wei and Lu (6.5)

My third story to analyze is stylistically different from the other two in that it briefly introduces two disfigured characters but then moves to more abstract philosophical discourse that continues to the end of the passage. In this way, the two individuals serve as brief examples of the kind of virtue possible according to the exposition that follows.

The narration begins, “A curved-toed, disfigured-limb man without lips counseled Duke Ling of the state of Wei. Duke Ling took delight in him, and when he looked at other “complete” people, he considered their necks to be lean and scrawny by comparison. Another man with a large goiter the size of a clay pot counseled Duke Huan of the state of Lu. Duke Huan took delight in him, and when he looked at other “complete” people, he considered their necks to be lean and scrawny by comparison.” The two individuals do not have names, only descriptions which vividly introduce them (and their most prominent physical features) to the reader. They each serve as counselor to one of the two different rulers mentioned, respectively. The two dukes come to the same conclusion regarding their counselors, namely that they begin to see the outward appearances of other supposedly “complete people” as incomplete or disfigured by comparison. Though the text does not directly tie this judgment of the respective counselors to their virtue, per se, it likely relates to their performance as persuasive counselors.23 Also, given that the remainder of the passage discusses virtue at length, one can deduce from these initial examples that it is the counselors’ virtue that allows the dukes to see them differently.

The text continues, “Therefore, when one’s virtue has a place to grow, the body itself will be something to overlook. When people don’t overlook what is [easy enough] to overlook yet do overlook what ought not be overlooked, this is called genuine obliviousness.” This section shifts to more abstract discussion on the interplay between virtue and the body, transitioning from the beginning of the story which merely alluded to this connection via the examples of the two disfigured counselors. Here, the passage asserts the body as both the place for a person to foster their virtue and as something to look beyond. When a person’s virtue matures, others begin to overlook their outward body and see the person based on their internal virtue. The word I translate here as “overlook” is 忘 (wang). Though it often conveys the meaning “to forget,” it can also refer to one being “oblivious to” or “indifferent to” something.24 I think these latter possibilities more fully arrive at the intended meaning, especially when one considers the final phrase “genuine obliviousness” (誠忘 cheng wang), implying that one who observes virtue inappropriately is one who truly misperceives reality.

Further description of such a person follows, “Therefore, when a sagely person has somewhere to wander, they [see] wisdom as a new shoot from old growth, pacts [with others] as immovable glue, favors as that which connect people, and a laborer’s skill as [something to be] peddled. If the sagely person does not make plans, what use is wisdom? If one [has no need] to carve away [something], what use is glue? If one does not keep up in connecting with people, what use are favors? If one does not buy and sell, what use are commercial goods?” The passage describes four aspects of human relations within which the sage “wanders” (遊 you): wisdom, pacts/agreements between people, favors, and a laborer’s skill. Upon listing the four, the overall argument expands by way of a matching rhetorical question for each, insisting that the sage does, in fact, rely on these four facets of human life in some way. Collectively, these examples create a collage of human culture, the realm where the sage develops virtue. Though the sage’s concerns may supersede those of the average person, they certainly come to fruition among the mundane aspects of human existence.

These four things are the nourishment of Heaven. This nourishment from Heaven is [a kind of] Heavenly food. If one fully receives this food from Heaven, what use are people [to the sagely person]? [One like this] has the bodily form of a person, but does not have a person’s inclinations. In having the body of a person, one is therefore [part of] the multitude of people [in the world]. Without having the inclinations of a person, though, the effects of disputing rights and wrongs do not gather in the body. So tiny are insignificant things [like the body] which one is dependent upon to be among people! So profound is the significance of uniquely becoming complete in what is from Heaven!

The sage “wanders” in pursuit of virtuous development while sharing human life with other people in three key ways: (1) culture; (2) bodily form; and (3) living among the throngs of other people. There is overlap between these three, as the passage’s larger claim maintains that something integral to sagely development takes place only within these domains of being human. Though the sage experiences limits given these parameters of human life, the difference for the sage rests in pursuing something greater (e.g., virtue, 德 de) than the base inclinations (情 qing) that most people cannot resist.

The two examples of disfigured individuals which begin this passage and the explication on virtue which follows may at first seem disjointed. The two counselors’ bodies are certainly part of who they are as people, a vital element of their being human, but their bodies pale in comparison to the more profound aspect of their existence, their internal capacity for virtue. As such, the two characters function as examples of living within and beyond the limits of human experience. Though the body is essential, it is not “significant.” It is the arena within which humans seek to fulfill the virtue that “Heaven” gives them. In this way, this third passage downplays the value of the body, disfigured or not, relative to the development of a person’s virtue.

The “De chong fu” chapter of Zhuangzi critiques important concepts within the philosophical milieu of its day. Though the text does not employ shame terms directly, the explicit assumptions presented by certain characters toward others, the themes discussed, and the cultural background all point to shame’s presence. Reacting to understandings of virtue, body, and completeness that the author(s) found problematic, the chapter presents physically disfigured characters as rhetorical devices to subvert the reader’s assumptions about what kind of moral growth is actually possible in the world. In doing so, the text challenges deeply held convictions about who can undergo such moral development, where it is located, and its limits. I now shift to the second set of stories to analyze from the Gospel of Mark.

Figuring the Disfigured in the Gospel of Mark’s Healing Stories

As one of the four biblical gospel accounts, the Gospel of Mark presents selected stories from the life of Jesus the Christ.25 In terms of literature, Mark contains elements of biography and history combined to form a new “gospel” genre, one which modern commentator Adela Yarbro Collins dubs “Eschatological Historical Monograph,” the purpose of which is to portray Jesus as a unique kind of prophet-messiah-teacher.26 The chief overarching concern of the book is presenting the divine-human identity of Jesus within the socio-cultural context of first century CE Israel. As such, as I examine stories of healing in light of shame, I must consider how they fit within the book’s larger purpose, particularly as the gradual revealing of who Jesus is occurs in the midst of conflict with various Jewish parties. Though there are numerous accounts of miracles and healing throughout the Gospel of Mark, I chose three representative episodes that match the disfigurement motif of the stories from Zhuangzi.

Gospel of Mark Story 1: The Leprous Man (1:40-45)

As my first story from Mark takes place at the end of chapter one, Jesus has already begun his ministry in Galilee, traveling around the region healing and casting out demons. As a result, his fame began to spread (1:28, 39). A man with a skin condition comes to Jesus, begs for his healing, and receives it. As a person with “leprosy,”27 his daily life would have been drastically different than others in his culture. Based on the instructions in Leviticus 13:45–46, those with skin diseases experienced expulsion from the larger society because of the contagion of the ailment. He likely suffered physically, emotionally, socially, and even religiously, the last being due to his prohibition from going to the temple. In light of a concern for “cultic purity,” commentator Joel Marcus contends that “sufferers were regarded as, in effect, corpses, and physical contact with them produced the same sort of defilement as touching dead bodies.”28 The text does not state anything regarding how the man became sick, nor does it provide us with his name. The man’s life experience certainly fits within the category of social shame I describe above.

The plea for healing strikes a nerve in appealing to Jesus’s compassion (v. 41). That Jesus touches the man in order to perform the healing act is significant, as this action in any other encounter would have deemed the toucher similarly ritually impure. In associating with the man’s impure status via touch, Jesus effectively reverses not only the man’s physical symptoms, but his social ones as well. Though it is perhaps easiest to marvel at the physical healing in this story, we must not neglect the social implications for the man. Jesus certainly does not do so as he commands the man to visit the priest for inspection (v. 44), which could result in his being cleared to return to his family, home, and temple worship. Jesus thus removes the leprous man’s social stigma, allowing him to return to a state of social wholeness.

The final aspect of this story I wish to highlight is Jesus’s insistence that the man not tell anyone about his healing (v. 44), other than the priest, of course. Ironically, the man does not heed Jesus’s instruction, taking full advantage of his newfound freedom to mingle socially and talk about his life transformation (v. 45). Though Jesus previously silences “unclean spirits” and “demons” (1:25, 34), this is the first instance of him explicitly telling a person not to share about their healing with other people. This odd paradox of “revealing” and “concealing” Jesus’s identity occurs throughout the Gospel of Mark, functioning as a rhetorical device known as the “messianic secret.”29 The ramifications of Jesus’ increasing notoriety are twofold. First, he interacts with growing crowds seeking his healing and teaching. Second, he must contend with Jewish groups in power who misunderstand, and feel threatened by, his identity as a potential messiah. This latter element is more pronounced in the next two stories.

Gospel of Mark Story 2: The Man with the Withered Hand (3:1–6)

This healing is the final of five “controversy stories,”30 in which Jesus’s actions throughout Galilee cause increasing friction with the local religious authorities. Their tension comes to a head in this episode as Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, the weekly day of rest, a day in which work of any kind (in this instance, the healing itself) ought not take place. The man Jesus heals has a “withered hand” (v. 1), which can mean that it is “dried up,” or alternatively, in a figurative sense as an “image of paralysis.”31 Either way, it does not seem that he deals with the same kind of social exclusion, due to his physical ailment, as the man with the skin condition. Jesus encounters him while entering the synagogue, and in such a public place, an unnamed group of onlookers, later identified as Pharisees (v. 6), curiously observe their interaction.

Unlike the earlier episode in which the man with leprosy begged Jesus for healing, the man with the withered hand does not speak in the story. Jesus speaks to him at one point, directing him to come to the center, presumably for all present to watch (v. 3), though the healing itself only serves as the narrative locus for the larger standoff between Jesus and the Pharisees. In this way, though we may extrapolate that the man’s social circumstances change as a result of being made physically “whole,” the text adds nothing by way of describing the man’s situation, before or after the healing. In regard to shame’s presence in this story, we must look to the other two parties present.

This story harkens back to the immediately preceding verses (2:23–28), which also feature Jesus and the Pharisees debating the keeping of the Sabbath requirements. In that story, as in this one, Jesus appeals to something that supersedes strict Sabbath observance: in the former, to Sabbath being created for humanity’s benefit (2:27); in the latter, to doing good and saving a life (3:4). Sabbath law permitted the saving of a person’s life on the Sabbath day, but scholars point to the fact that the man’s condition was not necessarily life-threatening as an argument that Jesus was not simply legalistically following the Sabbath law in healing the man.32 Rather, he intentionally engaged the Pharisees in debate in order to put them in their proper place. As a result of Jesus’ actions and words, then, I do not think it inappropriate to say that Jesus shamed them. They lost face in a very public way through the exchange, exemplified by their remaining silent (v. 4).33 This added fuel to the already stoked fire of their desire to “destroy him” (v.6). This story serves to highlight the two different visions for Israel of the Pharisees and Jesus. The Pharisees plotting also foreshadows the passion events still to come.

Gospel of Mark Story 3: Blind Bartimaeus (10:46–52)

Occurring several chapters later than the other two stories, my final healing account to examine functions as a transitional narrative which concludes the middle section, begun with a similar healing of a blind man (8:22–26), and paves the way for the shift to events in and around Jerusalem in the remaining chapters. The two stories of healing blind men thus bookend the middle section, one in which Jesus teaches repeatedly on sacrificial discipleship, reveals that he will soon die, experiences transfiguration, and summarily instructs the disciples who witness it not to tell what they have seen. Throughout this portion of Mark, the theme of “sight” related to faith is pervasive.

The man who receives healing at the conclusion of chapter ten is an active participant in his story, calling out to Jesus and an entourage (his disciples and a “large crowd;” v. 46) as they leave Jericho. Three details about his identity are important for consideration here: his name, his blindness, and his begging. That he has a name is unusual for healing stories of this kind,34 and commentators suggest different theories as to the significance of the name Bartimaeus, pointing to possible connections to Hebrew and Syriac/Aramaic cognates for “unclean” and “blind,” respectively, as well as to Plato’s Timaeus, a story about the son of Timaeus with strong themes on the relationship of sight and insight.35 It is difficult to know precisely the reason for the name, though the fact that the blind man possesses the name he does—particularly as one considers the themes of sight and faith in this story and the larger section of the book—seems significant and would likely have been evocative for the original hearers of the story.

That the story mentions Bartimaeus’ blindness and begging together is a symptom of the larger culture’s stigma toward someone with his physical disability, forcing him to the fringes of society spatially and socially (to the edge of town).36 His dismissal from his culture is also present in how Jesus’s disciples treat him upon calling out to Jesus as they attempt to “rebuke” him into “silence” (v. 48).37 They cannot quell his desire to be healed, as he calls out again to Jesus, who, in the end, restores his sight. Bartimaeus’s blindness, while very real to him, is also important for how the story rhetorically contrasts his “sight” with that of the disciples. Jesus’s question to him, asking him what he wants (v. 51), recalls a similar question Jesus presented to James and John in the immediately preceding story (10:35–45), who reply that they desire the status of sitting next to Jesus in his “glory,” though the text indicates that they do not really comprehend the fullness of what they seek. Though Bartimaeus is physically blind, he understands Jesus’ identity via his faith (v. 52) far better than the other disciples.38

In summarizing these three healing stories from the Gospel of Mark, we observe repeated demonstrations of Jesus’s compassion and signs of a slowly developing revelation of Jesus’ identity. Though each of the stories explicitly portray physical healing, we miss the larger transformation taking place if we do not also notice the underlying presence of the socio-cultural dynamic of honor and shame. As such, just as Jesus knows his own path leads towards physical and social suffering in the passion events he would soon face, his compassion compels him to see and heal the whole person, to alleviate others’ physical ailments while also overcoming the social shame they experience.

Comparative Theological Reflections

In this last section, I tease out essential similarities and differences between the two sets of texts from Zhuangzi and the Gospel of Mark. In doing so, I hope to help the reader think through some potential theological implications for such a comparative analysis. Beginning with the similarities, three in particular stand out. First, both groups of stories serve to rhetorically subvert cultural expectations of honor and shame. In the Zhuangzi stories from “De chong fu (德充符),” the disfigured characters are the true exemplars of virtue, not because they are disfigured, but because, in spite of their physical disfigurement, they each are still uniquely capable of and demonstrate virtuous growth. In Mark, Jesus goes against cultural norms, touches someone unclean, flirts with breaking Sabbath laws, and pays attention to a blind man that others wanted to silence and ignore, all of which reflect his willingness to risk cultural impropriety for the needs of people he met face to face.

Secondly, the two sets of stories, each in their own manner, serve to humanize those whose physical disabilities have caused them shame in some form or another in the larger society. The Zhuangzi texts attribute the capacity for moral development to those with disfigured physical forms, extending the definition of what it means to be human beyond, though still contained within, the body. Similarly, as Jesus heals those with various physical ailments, he simultaneously restores their respective social places among family, culture, and temple, thus helping them maintain a fuller version of their human selves than they were previously allowed. Finally, the texts highlight the interdependent relationship between the physical, social, and moral realms of human life as they pertain to honor and shame. In both sets of stories, individuals’ physical bodies (disabled and non-disabled alike) unfairly dictated social status, perceived moral capacity, and social conduct.

Though the episodes from Zhuangzi and the Gospel of Mark share common motifs, it is in pointing to one specific feature of difference that I intend to offer constructive suggestions for theological reflections on shame. The Zhuangzi stories present compelling notions in regard to how to understand body and wholeness, ideas which are not incompatible with Christian theology and which are certainly critical for how we interact with and treat all people. In the stories of disfigurement from Zhuangzi, the larger point is that physical disability and the general limits of the human body are not inherently setbacks for one to be a “whole” or “complete” person. One is capable of being whole via moral development, seeking virtue while living within the body, regardless of its condition.

On the surface of the healing stories we examined from Mark, one could come to understand that Jesus physically healing various people is what makes them whole, that bodily wholeness equates to human wholeness. This thinking certainly pervades the Jewish culture of that day, informed by Hebrew Scriptures, and similar theology and resulting treatment of those with physical disabilities is also common throughout church history. Yet, even in the details I observed above about the social nature of shame and the social implications of the healings, we see that physical wholeness is not the entire picture in these Markan stories. Jesus interacted with those of society that others rarely did, overcoming social barriers and extending honor in the process.


As a result of the insights gleaned from my comparative analysis above, I believe Christians must address the following questions. What is human wholeness in relation to the body? What is a healthy Christian theology of the physical body? What is the relationship between our physical bodies and our resurrection bodies? How does our answer to the previous question influence how we perceive physical disabilities now? How can we understand “wholeness” in light of physical disability? Should our primary concern toward those with disabilities be solely confined to medical healing? Or, are there alternative ways of thinking and being which consider disabled people as already “whole,” just as they are? Fortunately, others have already grappled with these questions in ways relevant to our modern concerns (e.g., medical ethics, disability rights) and which have the potential to impact practices within the church.

I suggest two resources Christians might draw from in order to contribute to a better understanding of the body, particularly in light of the literary motif of disfigured individuals and their social shame as observed in the stories of this study. The first is the field of disability studies at large, interdisciplinary by its nature, combining areas of study as varied as law, medicine, ethics, psychology, philosophy, and religion, all with the aim of developing better theory and practice in regard to issues affecting those with disabilities of various kinds.39 Becoming familiar with the ways that people discuss disability and the body outside the church is crucial for beginning to think about them theologically. Secondly, one theologian who has spent a considerable portion of his career working in this area is Amos Yong.40 His work critiques long-standing attitudes, behaviors, and thinking as he reinterprets many biblical passages with a “disability hermeneutic,” one which has profound implications not just for those with physical disabilities, but for understanding the message of the Christian gospel as a whole.

Travis Allyn Myers is a current MA student in Chinese Literature at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He holds degrees from Lipscomb University (BA in Biblical Studies) and Abilene Christian University (MDiv, MA in Missions). Travis previously lived, worked, taught, and studied in mainland China for 7 years in two different cities, Wuhan (Hubei province) and Kunming (Yunnan province). His research interests include theological anthropology, religious pluralism, ritual, and spiritual practices and formation, especially with regard to comparative approaches in theology, philosophy, and ethics.

1 Jayson Georges and Mark D. Baker, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures: Biblical Foundations and Practical Essentials (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016), 15–19; Jackson Wu, Saving God’s Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame (Pasadena, CA: William Carey International University Press, 2013), 46–48.

2 Stockitt emphasizes the corporate, social, and relational nature of shame in Robin Stockitt, Restoring the Shamed: Towards a Theology of Shame (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 28–41.

3 Ibid., 7, lists some of the same shame “pseudonyms,” such as “disgrace, ridicule, humiliation, unworthiness, contempt, condemnation.”

4 David A. deSilva, The Hope of Glory: Honor Discourse and New Testament Interpretation (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1999), 1–34, emphasizes the need for recognizing the presence of honor and shame in the larger Greco-Roman background of the New Testament, as well as in Jewish culture. His book’s introduction on this topic is informative for understanding how these phenomena function.

5 Zorodzai Dube, “Reception of Jesus as Healer in Mark’s Community,” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 74, no. 1 (2018): 1–5.

6 Paul F. Knitter, Introducing Theologies of Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 1, employs this phrase to describe the concurrent “problem” of the reality of pluralism in the world and the “promise” it provides via new opportunities for interaction and learning from those of other religious faith traditions. Knitter’s book provides an overview of different historical Christian approaches to developing a “theology of religion,” including the most recent, comparative theology. Though comparative theology as a distinct method of theology has developed considerably in the past three decades, Clooney thoroughly charts its various academic roots, some of which go back several centuries. See chapters 2 and 3 in Francis X. Clooney, Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Another helpful work of introduction to comparative theology, relating the nature, method, and breadth of the current field is Catherine Cornille, Meaning and Method in Comparative Theology (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2019). See also James L. Fredericks, Faith Among Faiths: Christian Theology and Non-Christian Religions (New York: Paulist Press, 1999).

7 Erin M. Cline, Confucius, Rawls, and the Sense of Justice (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 6.

8 The fracturing of the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BCE) gave way to numerous vassal states, which, in time, built up their own autonomy and began vying for power. As the more powerful states conquered weaker ones, the total number shrank, ultimately resulting in Qin Shihuang unifying ancient China through conquest in 221 BCE. It was thus within this backdrop of centuries of constant warfare and political instability that literature such as Zhuangzi began to take shape, much of which concerned itself with the nature of people and how to govern them and espoused competing notions for each. As nobility in positions of power trained to be effective leaders, they sought teaching from wise masters. In fact, the first two stories I analyze below have as their setting students studying with a master teacher, one who they hope will provide ways of understanding human virtue and governance. The third story includes two counselors serving rulers in respective independent states.

9 Harold Roth, “Chuang Tzu,” in Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide, ed. Michael Loewe (Society for the Study of Early China: University of California, 1993), 56–58. The only extant recension comes to us via Guo Xiang’s (d. 312 CE) commentary, though Roth outlines that other commentaries and sources point to earlier recensions with different numbers of chapters and unknown differences in textual content from Guo’s version. This indicates that the only received version of Zhuangzi underwent considerable editing by Guo Xiang. As a result, modern scholars attempt to reconstruct the various strands of compilation prior to Guo in order to determine earlier compilers and contributors. Due to this complex textual history, about much of which we must speculate, it is imprecise to speak of Zhuang Zhou as the sole author of the whole text we now possess.

10 One modern philosopher, Van Norden, describes this thread of polemical satire in Zhuangzi as a kind of “therapeutic skepticism,” seeking to relieve us from the anxiety of the certainty of knowledge. See his introduction on Zhuangzi in Bryan W. Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2011), 142–62. Elsewhere, Moeller and D’Ambrosio trace scholarly studies on humor in Zhuangzi, contrasting it with a relative dearth of humor in other ancient Chinese literature of its time, in Hans-Georg Moeller and Paul J. D’Ambrosio, Genuine Pretending: On the Philosophy of the Zhuangzi (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 71–76.

11 Three such Chinese characters in Zhuangzi fit within the shame semantic realm: 愧 (kui, “ashamed, shame-faced, lose face,” 5 occurrences), 恥 (chi, “shame, ashamed, humiliate/d,” 11 occurrences), and 辱 (ru, “disgrace, dishonor, insult,” 14 occurrences). See A Student’s Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese, rev. ed., ed. Paul W. Kroll et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 248, 52, 391; hereafter I refer to this work as SDCMC.

12 All translations of the Chinese texts are mine with reference to the following: Brook Ziporyn, trans., Zhuangzi, The Essential Writings: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2009); A. C. Graham, trans., Chuang-Tzu: The Inner Chapters (London: Unwin, 1989); Victor Mair, trans., Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang-Tzu (New York: Bantam Books, 1994); Burton Watson, trans., The Complete Works of Zhuangzi (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013). The Chinese text I use comes from Zhuangzi jishi 莊子集釋, comm. Guo Qingfan 郭慶藩 (1844–1896?), ed. Wang Xiaoyu王孝魚 (1900–1981) (Taibei: Sanmin shuju, 1993).

13 SDCMC, 406.

14 Ibid., 191, 460.

15 Ziporyn, 34.

16 SDCMC, 26, 177.

17 SDCMC, 482.; Ziporyn, 35, for example, translates the term in an explicitly penal sense.

18 SDCMC, 607.

19 An alternate reading is possible for the final phrase, 子無乃稱 (zi wu nai cheng), as with other translators. “Don’t tell anyone about this!” (Ziporyn, 35) and “Mention no more about it, sir,” (Mair, 45) are two good examples. I use “defer to” here for 稱 (cheng) as it connects back to Zichan’s concern with Shen Tujia deferring to him, based on their relative social status.

20 Three separate words in the first two sentences relate to feet: (1) Shushan’s being one who is footless (兀者 wuzhe); (2) “without a foot” as his nickname (無趾 wuzhi), as the “foot” also can refer to the foot of a mountain, a type of word association pun on his surname, Shan (山) (mountain); (3) and his “following” (踵 zhong) a teacher is connected to the “heel” of a foot or “following after one’s heels.” See SDCMC, 482, 607, 612.

21 On how Zhuangzi parodies Confucian emphasis on social change through external ritual (禮 li), see Kim-chong Chong, Zhuangzi’s Critique of the Confucians (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2016), 3-4. “Kongzi” elsewhere (and below in this story) also has the name Kongqiu. Thus in this text, the names Zhongni, Kongzi, and Kongqiu all refer to the same individual, Latinized as Confucius in English.

22 See Ziporyn, 23n8, for explanation of the development of Lao Dan as a literary figure. When this text was still in its nascent form, Daoism had not yet experienced the centuries of development and growth that would make it the philosophical and religious tradition that we know today.

23 An alternative interpretation is translating the two individuals as “pleasing” (說 yue) the respective dukes due to their deformities or some unstated reason. If so, they are not counselors, those who persuade or lobby (說 shui). If one chooses the former interpretation, it is the dukes who come across as the virtuous exemplars of the story for “seeing” the two disfigured individuals differently than most see them. See SDCMC, 426.

24 SDCMC, 470.

25 The Gospel of Mark comes from the first century CE (ca. 68–69). See Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, ed. Harold W. Attridge (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 1–14.

26 Ibid., 15–84.

27 Joel Marcus, Mark 1–8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 205, points out that the man’s condition could have been one of a number of different skin diseases, from something temporary and easily treatable, to what we commonly refer to today as leprosy, called Hansen’s disease, medically curable today but not at the time of the text. The term in the text, lepros, as used at the time, is imprecise, conveying only that the man had some kind of skin condition.

28 Ibid., 208.

29 Cf. Mark 1:34; 3:12; 5:43; 7:36; 8:30; 9:9. Collins, 170–72, explains this phenomenon and traces its historical development within biblical scholarship.

30 Marcus, 250.

31 Ibid., 247; Collins, 206.

32 Marcus, 248; Collins, 207–08.

33 Face as a way of earning or losing respect in social interactions is intrinsically related to a discussion of honor and shame. Christopher L. Flanders, About Face: Rethinking Face for 21st Century Mission (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), presents a study of face in Thai culture with far-reaching implications for developing contextualized soteriology in any culture.

34 See Collins, 506–08, on the rarity of him having a name.

35 Ibid., 508–09, outlines these and other theories on the background of the name.

36 See Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 208.

37 Though the text here does not describe any of the characters ascribing blame of the man’s condition to his own alleged actions, the assumption of connecting a disabled person’s physical condition with their own doing is not absent from Jewish culture at the time. For example, see John 9:1–34. Assumptions and prejudices of this kind toward those who are physically disabled lead to the kinds of behavior we see in this story, the disciples’ attempts to dismiss the man outright and silence him.

38 Moloney, 210, for a fuller description of the relationship between faith and sight.

39 Barnes’s theory-oriented work of social philosophy is a helpful introduction to disability studies, covering a wide spectrum of issues which should benefit those unfamiliar with the field. Elizabeth Barnes, The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

40 The book I refer to here and recommend as a starting point is Amos Yong, The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011). An earlier, more exhaustive and theory-focused volume covering many of the same concerns is Amos Yong, Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007). Two additional works of biblical studies which incorporate disability studies into their methodology are: Jamie Clark-Soles, “Mark and Disability,” Interpretation 70, no. 2 (2016): 159-171; Disability Studies and Biblical Literature, edited by Candida R. Moss and Jeremy Schipper (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

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