Perhaps the London 2012 Paralympics, with the astonishing athleticism and the crowds of enthusiastic spectators, ended for good the taboo surrounding disability, at least in the United Kingdom, and bequeathed a legacy of respect for physically disadvantaged people. If so, it would not be before time.
In every culture there have been centuries of entrenched prejudice against the physically impaired. Consider, for example, the graphic little catalogue in the Messianic Rule of the Qumran community, dated to the middle of the first century BC, excluding whole categories of people from the assembly of God: “No man smitten in his flesh, or paralyzed in his feet or hands, or lame, or blind, or deaf, or dumb; no old and tottery man unable to stay still … let him not enter among the congregation for he is smitten” (1QSa). Or consider the exclusion rules in Leviticus, datable in its present form to the return of the Jewish leadership from captivity in Babylon (thus after about 538 BC): “No one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf …” (Lev 21: 16-24).
Admittedly, at Qumran as well as in Leviticus, the exclusions apply only to men judged unfit to exercise authority as leaders and priests in the respective worshipping communities. Such injunctions, however, were surely in the mind of Jesus when he enjoined the ruler in the sect of the Pharisees, who is hosting a meal: "When you give a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, but when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind” (Lk 14: 12-14). Surely, at the exclusive table fellowship of those who were supposedly God ‘s elect, Jesus was, once again, the disruptive guest, re-defining who might “eat bread together” in anticipation of the messianic banquet, doing so by recalling and overturning these long accepted restrictions on the physically handicapped in community worship.
Of course nobody today would prohibit the physically impaired from taking their full part in worshipping God. To that extent, in Christian and post-Christian societies, the intervention of Jesus has proved effective. On the other hand, the proliferation of gymnasia for affluent people to “work out”, as well as increasing public concern about obesity in the lower orders, might sometimes endorse a certain cult of physical fitness which, however unwittingly and indirectly, celebrates a go-getting entrepreneurial culture and favours the ideal of human perfection as being able to stand on your own two feet. If we regarded ourselves as fulfilled and truly human only as an elite of completely independent self-motivating autonomous beings (the picture that as a matter of fact has been assumed for generations in much modern Western philosophy), it should be no surprise that certain categories of people would not be invited to the table: the senile and the unborn, to take extreme examples, but ailing, alien and marginal people in many areas of life.
If Jesus re-defines who are called to take part in the messianic banquet is he not really only defining what counts as being human — made in God’s image? Moreover, is he not revealing once again, at the Pharisee’s banquet, dramatically and trenchantly, what he insists on many other occasions: namely, that, simply as human beings, we are all, one way or another, needy, vulnerable, incomplete and imperfect — equally dependent on the gift of love that we can never earn or deserve? As Jesus repeats in many different ways, the only “handicap” that would exclude a person from accepting the invitation to come to his table is the belief that other people by rights should not be there. The “righteous”, the ones who will be repaid at the “resurrection of the just”, as Jesus says here, are people who share food with the disadvantaged. But sharing food is the symbol for sharing life. And life as embodied and revealed by Jesus Christ means belonging to the community in which every one is equally a child of God.