State College Presbyterian this morning, Dean Lindsey was preaching from Luke 14:1-6, where Jesus, on his way to a fancy meal with "a leader of the Pharisees" on the sabbath, pauses to heal a man with "dropsy". This is the set-up to another confrontation about healing on the sabbath, of course, but I confess that I had never paused to think about what "dropsy" might be and what significance could be found in this particular ailment. Dean's message really grabbed my attention. (Afterwards, I went to the big commentary on Luke by Joel Green, where I found the same information developed further.)
So what was dropsy? It is an old term for generalized edema, bodily swelling due to excessive fluid retention; though not a disease in itself, dropsy is "an indication of malfunction in the body, especially congestive heart failure or kidney disease." (Green, p546) Paradoxically, though the person with dropsy swells up because of an excess of water, s/he is perpetually thirsty - "nothing is as dry as a person with dropsy". And because of this, dropsy was associated from ancient times with excessive and disordered desire. Green quotes Stobeaus' Florilegium 3.10.45, "...as dropsies, though filled with fluid, crave drink, so money-lovers, though loaded with money, crave more of it, yet both to their demise." Jesus' healing of the dropsical man therefore serves as a kind of acted parable of the healing he desires to bring to the status-craving, zero-sum guests at the meal that he will shortly be attending. Green titles this section: Jesus Heals an Insatiable Thirst.
What a powerful image! We think of Jesus' ministry as benefiting the weak, the powerless, those whose diseases are diseases of poverty, of lack. And of course that is right, as Luke is the first to insist. But here, Luke also shows us Jesus healing someone whose disease is (socially interpreted as) one of opulence, of excess. The dropsical man is drowning in the water he can't help drinking - drowning as literally as the child who has fallen into the well (verse 5), whose rescue is an urgent matter.
Westerners like me live in a world which is wired for dropsy. Though loaded with possessions, we crave more of them. Our houses have edemas. We know that our thirst is hurting the planet. We know that it's making us less free. But can we be healed? This story holds out hope for those who are trapped by excessive and unsatisfactory consumption. Jesus desires to heal. And this is part of the urgent work, the rest-bringing work, the necessary work of the Sabbath.
Photo: Illustrator of Petrus Comestor's 'Bible Historiale', France, Healing of the Man with Dropsy, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague, 1372
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