The Word Encountered
The Lame Shall Leap
God raised up his servant and sent him to bless you
by turning each of you from your evil ways. (Acts 3:26)
Let's look at the big picture. When John the Evangelist wants to highlight one of Jesus' healings to illustrate the meaning of his ministry, he picks the healing of the man born blind (John 9), for in his Gospel believing is the deepest kind of seeing; in that sense, we are all born blind until we have the faith to see afresh by the light of the world that is Jesus. Similarly, when Luke wants to illustrate what is going forward in his history of the post-Easter Church, he chooses to focus first, and at great length, on the healing of the man born lame (Acts 3-4), for in his account the Church is called “the Way.” Relative to that way, we are all born lame until we are moved by faith from the paralysis of nonbelief to movement on the Way, following the risen Lord Jesus.
The reading from Acts that we hear this Sunday is drawn from the speech that follows and explains the healing of the man born lame. Since the excerpt used in the reading is rarely commented upon and even more rarely placed in context, it might be helpful to do so here.
The occasion of Peter's speech is the healing that precedes it. Peter and John, continuing their Jewish practice of worshiping at the Temple, approach the Beautiful Gate and encounter a well-known beggar there. Having no money, Peter gives him what he does have. He says to the man born lame, “In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, [rise and] walk.” Peter takes him by the hand, raises him up, and immediately the man stands up, walks, and begins leaping. The action of jumping is important to Luke, for he mentions it twice in this brief account.
Why the emphasis on leaping? There is only one place in the Hebrew Bible that mentions the lame leaping, the oracle about Israel's deliverance in Isa 35:5-6:
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of deaf be cleared;
Then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the dumb will sing.
Jesus himself had alluded to this passage when asked to identify himself to John the Baptist's disciples (see Luke 7:22). It would seem that Luke underscores the leaping of the healed man because he sees in this physical cure a sign of the larger meaning of what is going forward in post-Easter Jerusalem: the healing illustrates, “acts out,” the restoration of Israel that is occurring in the growth of the Christian community after Pentecost.
When the spectacle of the lame man leaping draws a crowd, Peter is quick to interpret this event against the long story of Israel: “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. … ” The language evokes Genesis and Isaiah. That is, the God who identified himself as God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to Moses in the burning bush episode (Gen 3:6), the God of the covenant promises who enabled the people to make the Exodus out of Egypt, has also fulfilled the prophecy of the fourth Servant Song (Isa 52:13) in “glorifying his servant” Jesus in the resurrection. And this healing, with all it represents, is an extension of that glorification. In rejecting Jesus at Passover time, they had involved themselves in something bigger than they knew. They should repent, therefore, not just from complicity in Jesus’ death, but in response to the call to conversion that was the thrust of Jesus' public life.
The speech continues to explain the implications of the resurrection with references to the Hebrew Bible. This Jesus is the “prophet-like- Moses” mentioned in Deuteronomy 18, whom God has indeed “raised up” (the event of the resurrection giving a new sense to the original meaning of “raise up” in Deuteronomy). The final words of the speech complete the interpretation:
Moreover, all the prophets who spoke, from Samuel and those afterwards, also announced these days. You are the children of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your ancestors when he said to Abraham, “In your offspring all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” For you first, God raised up his servant and sent him to bless you by turning each of you from your evil ways.
In other words, Jesus, as risen Lord, is operating through the likes of Peter and John, implementing the covenant with Abraham promising that Israel would be a blessing to all nations.
When we hear these words as Luke intended us to hear them, this speech brings the meaning of resurrection right into our own backyard. Like the first group of “Israel restored,” we meet the risen Lord in the life and mission of the community of believers.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University