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.