Religio Philologi: The Lame and the Blind

Long long ago in another galaxy, I wrote a series of pieces looking at the plain meaning of various passages in the New Testament, not as anyone pretending to be a theologian or Biblical scholar, but as a simple philologist seeking the kind of understanding of a Greek text he might get by studying Demosthenes or Sophocles.  I am going to try and dig them up and refurbish them, if I can find them.  I am afraid I wrote some of them for another website that has by now undoubtedly 86ed them, as they say in commercial  kitchens.

I tend not to read the commentators, because most of them have a sectarian or theological ax to grind, though when I can dig something out of the Fathers, I’ll do it.

The Gospel lesson for Sunday, in the traditional Catholic calendar, was the parable of the man who gave the banquet in Luke 14:16-24.  The context is significant.  Jesus is dining with pharisees, and  He asks the legal experts if it is lawful to heal a man on the sabbath.  They say nothing, and the man is healed.  Knowing what is on their minds, he asks them who would not rescue a valuable animal on the sabbath, and throws in a parable that is often taken as a mere lesson on courtesy:

And he put forth a parable to those which were bidden, when he marked how they chose out the chief rooms; saying unto them.

When thou art bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room; lest a more honourable man than thou be bidden of him.

He then drew the conclusion:  “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”  The obvious point is that the pharisees are sitting in the catbird seat of the chosen people and exalt themselves.

Sticking to the pretended theme of banquets, He goes on to warn them against inviting rich people to dinner in the expectation of receiving a counter-invitation.  In other words, pharisaical morality requires them to do good for the purpose of receiving compensation.

One of the pharisees, beginning to get something of the point, “Blessed is he that shall eat bread in the kingdom of God,” which brings us to the parable of the feast, which we are prepared to understand as a comment on who will actually partake of that feast in the kingdom of God.

As everyone knows, a man prepares a great supper and sends out his servant to invite his friends, but each of them has an excuse for not coming.  “Then the master of the house being angry said to his servant, Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind.”

When the banquet is still not filled up, the master instructs the servant to go out of town, into the hedges and highways, and bring in the outsiders

Before getting to the point, I have never found this parable dramatically convincing.  You invite people to dinner, and they don’t come.  Why get angry?  I suppose the only answer a man might make is:  My supposed friends put everything else in their lives ahead of our friendship and my hospitality.

Although hardly anyone is willing to preach on the literal meaning of this text, the point is pretty clear.  Up until this point, the friends of God have been the Jews, and in particular, the more observant Jews, such as the pharisees.  But, invited to sup at the heavenly table, they have refused and, as he tells us in another banquet parable, they kill the messenger, as they have killed the prophets in the past and as they will kill the Son in the near future.

First, it is the losers who live in the city who are brought in, and then the outsiders.  The Church, then, will be made up of Jews who do not belong to the establishment and will include even non-Jews.

But why the lame, the halt, and the blind?  I did not really get the point until a few days ago, as we were doing our daily two chapters of the Old Testament.  In II Samuel 5:6-8, David wants to take Jerusalem from the Jebusites, who taunt him, saying he could even take the city from the blind and crippled:  “Except thou take away the blind and the lame, thou shalt not come in hither: thinking, David cannot come in hither.”   David declares the blind and crippled are his enemy, “Wherefore they said, The blind and the lame shall not come into the house”—a reference to Leviticus 21:18 that prohibits anyone with a blemish from approaching the sanctuary, including anyone blind, lame, with broken foot or hand or a flat nose, etc.

In other words, Jerusalem, the earthly image of the heavenly kingdom, is treated as a sacred place where the deformed are not supposed to enter.  Thus Jesus, in telling the pharisees that their place will be taken by the lame and the blind, is preaching from a text they will readily appreciate.

I looked through many commentaries, but I did not find anyone who made the connection, but perhaps someone with a better grasp of the Scriptures and the commentators can tell me one who has.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

18 Responses

  1. Allen Wilson says:

    It’s funny you should mention the other web site. I logged into it for the first time in a long time a few days ago. Your articles are still there as far back as late 2010. If recall, some of or all of the “Gentile Church” series are still there.

    Speaking of magazines with which you were once associated, I just visited the Southern Partisan web site. I didn’t stay long out of disgust. I didn’t bother to look and see who owns it now, but it looks like it’s been taken over by the revolution.

  2. Allen Wilson says:

    I forgot to mention: I had to do a search for your name in order to find your articles.

  3. Khater M says:

    What did you see on the Southern Partisan website that makes you think it’s been taken over by the revolution? Gas it gone Liberal?

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Some stuff remains, but not others. Perhaps either the failure to remove or failure to maintain is simply the result of incompetence

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I heard some leftist group took over the Partisan. It was bad enough when Richard Quinn and his people took it over and made it a vehicle for their GOP PR operations, currently under investigation. There is no reason to lament the past. “Nothing gold can stay,” was Frost’s judgment, and it is true of all human institutions, which always end up in the hands of self-seeking third-raters like Quinn and company.

  6. Patrick Kinnell says:

    I think your interpretation makes sense. It seems another instance of Our Lord sticking his finger into the eyes of the Jews similar to
    the above mentioned parable about the evil tenants and the vineyard. So many of the parables seem to work that way. And then there
    is that account in Luke when he reads from Isaiah 61 about the Spirit being upon him to heal and bring freedom to the captives except he then
    goes out of his way to offend his townsfolk by saying that in the days of Elijah only the widow up in Sidon and Namaan over in Syria
    were helped by the prophet.

  7. Patrick Kinnell says:

    I meant to add: both were non Jews

  8. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, that aspect is pretty clear. The problem is that career anti-Semities–or rather Jew-hater, to be more precise–like to take these passages and run with them, thus making it difficult, if not impossible to discuss them sanely.

  9. Patrick Kinnell says:

    I completely agree. I have reservations about posting on this subject but the Scripture seems very clear. And the charge
    of super-secessionism, or “Replacement Theology” that is leveled against those of us who hold that the Church is the
    new Israel. Very difficult indeed.

  10. Raymond Olson says:

    Tom–Thank you. You once again fulfill the work of the commentator on texts that I value most highly. You clear away the detritus that has gathered around my long-held opinions or interpretations or understandings and help me see why I have hung on to them. It’s a version of telling me something good that I already know.

  11. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    You are too kind, Ray, though you have hit exactly the point. Although not a real fan of the old Bolshie Woody Guthrie, I always liked and borrowed his statement that he wanted to be known as the man who told you what you already knew..

    To Patrick Kinnell, you are right to be cautious. On the one hand the texts are crystal clear, especially the later parts of John’s Gospel, and, when one takes into consideration two historical facts, the significance is even more plain. The first fact is the Church’s decision not to impose Jewish laws on Gentile Christians, and the second is the later insistence that even Christians of Jewish ancestry were not permitted to observe Jewish religious customs. On the other hand, there are anti-Semitic nut jobs who want to eliminate the OT–and this goes back to Marcion the heretic–or spend their entire life cursing Jews.

    There is a reason why Jesus was born a Jew, and in denying it we lose all context for his mission. The Jewish reaction was twofold: on the one hand, a significant number of Jews–perhaps a third–in the Middle East became Christian; on the other, the rabbis began to adapt their religion to meet the Christian challenge. This development has been observed and described by my old friend Rabbi Jacob Neusner.

    By the way, in writing this piece, my only object was to link up the OT passages on the lame and the blind with the parable in Luke. The basic meaning of the parable, I had assumed was known to everyone. This is far from being the only place in the NT where this point is made.

  12. Robert Reavis says:

    Dear Dr. Fleming,
    Enjoyed this little reflection . Dom Gueranger says of Luke “”According to tradition he was an artist, as well as a man of letters; and with a soul alive to all the most delicate inspirations, he consecrated his pencil to the holiest use, and handed down to us the features of the Mother of God. It was an illustration worthy of the Gospel which relates to the divine Infancy; and it won for the artist a new title to the gratitude of those who never saw Jesus and Mary in the flesh. Hence St. Luke is patron of Christian art.”

    And the choleric St Jerome says of Luke ” from his writings he was more skilled in Greek than in Hebrew, and that therefore he not only always makes use of the Septuagint translation, as the other authors of the New Testament who wrote in Greek do, but he refrains sometimes from translating words when the propriety of the Greek tongue would not bear it.”

    Your references to the Old Testament were probably spot on .

  13. Allen Wilson says:

    Khater M,

    Two things: unequivocal statements that the cause of the men of the South was slavery, and also a statement that the Alabama legislation designed to protect Confederate monuments is an attempt to preserve “white supremacy”.

  14. Dot says:

    I think a book that speaks to this subject is: Jacob & the Prodigal by Kenneth I. Bailey. The Master sees his Prodigal son in the far distance and runs to him. He doesn’t wait for the son to come to him to ask forgiveness for running off and spending all his money. Instead, he, the father, embraces his son, celebrates his return and asks his servants to prepare a banquet. He brother who is working in the field seems envious that his brother, the Prodigal, is getting all the accolades. But the Father already had the son who worked the field. He rejoiced at the brother who left for the “good life”, spent all his money, repented and returned home. In the above parable the Father is doing the same thing – reaching out to the outsiders to celebrate at the banquet. The Father is God who reaches out to us. Jacob and the Prodigal is a very good book. .

  15. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Dot, thanks for this, but could you expand a bit. I am a bit obtuse and don’t quite see what your are driving at. I’ve never read Canon Bailey, though I have been aware of him and wondered how he could have stayed in communion with PECUSA until hi death in 2016. Every church has scoundrels and degenerates, but not every church body has openly Lesbian bishops. I write as a former Anglican who is still fond of that tradition.

  16. Dot says:

    “.When thou are bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room; lest a more honorable man than thou be bidden of him.”

    Referring to the Pharisees, Jesus says, “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbled himself shall be exalted” because they believe it would be unlawful to heal a man on the Sabbath.”

    Jesus, however, turns the tables and includes the “less honorable” at the wedding feast.

    “When the banquet is still not filled up, the master instructs the servant to go out of town, into the hedges and highways, and bring in the outsiders”. In my understanding of the above parable, “the poor, and the maimed, and the halt and the blind” represent those in the “far country”. It is these people who would be excluded from the banquet of the Pharisees but included in the banquet of the Master.

    When the Prodigal returns from the “far country” the father runs out to the son and embraces him. He doesn’t admonish him but tells his servant to prepare a banquet. The father humbles himself and rejoices at the return of his son from exile in the far country.

    I highly recommend reading Jacob & the Prodigal by Kenneth E. Bailey. The book was published in 2003. It is available at Amazon.

  17. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, I know all the passages, and they have more or less the same message, that the special status that the Children of Israel had enjoyed up to that point was now transferred to the brothers in Christ.

  18. Ben says:

    …goyim and infidels.(?)
    get to the point.

    moderation is
    an illusion –
    modesty is only
    the average
    of extremes
    which is why
    James D.
    gets the point
    with humor