The Bible is written so that even when a reader cannot pick up on what might be deeper or more detailed aspects of a text, there is virtually always a message to be heard. In the ancient world, where the “reader” of Scripture would likely be a church official facing a congregation gathered to hear, perspicuous communication of the literal and moral dimensions of the text would have been a necessity. But those trained in Scripture could unfold meanings that would have been less apparent.
The story in Luke 14:1-24 is a text that contains obvious though profound lessons. Jesus heals on the Sabbath, making clear that honoring the Sabbath includes bringing salvation and rest to those in need (Luke 14:1-6). The parable of the wedding feast, with its rebuke of those who push themselves forward to obtain glory (Luke 14:7-11), followed by Jesus’ direct instruction to the leader of the Pharisees not to invite the rich who can repay him, but the poor who cannot (Luke 14:12-14), both point hearers to seek the glory that only comes from God. One of those who heard Jesus speak understood, at some level at least, and exclaimed “Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!” (Luke 14:15). Jesus responded to the man with the parable of the great supper, in which He warned the Jews that if they did not respond to Jesus’ invitation to the kingdom, it would be taken from them and given to others (Luke 14:16-24). These lessons are unmistakable and edifying.
But the more one thinks about the passage, the more he will be haunted by certain details concerning the first six verses (at the least). Why introduce three paragraphs focusing on banquets and dinner etiquette with a Sabbath healing? Though the Sabbath healing does take place at a banquet, what does it have to do with wedding feasts and great banquets? Why is a sick man seated right in front of Jesus? Why does Luke tell us the man has dropsy — the only use of this word in the New Testament or Septuagint?
Contrary to Willi Braun, whose book offered much help in meditating on the passage,[i] keys to this passage include remembering that author of the third Gospel — as he is often called — really was Luke — the famous physician who would have understood more about disease than most and the traveling companion of the former-Pharisee-turned-apostle, Paul, who no doubt gave Luke deep insight into the Pharisaic mind. I believe that the physician Luke included the medical detail for reasons that link the medical and metaphorical with a touch of irony.
To consider some of the questions raised above, let me begin with the odd fact that a man with dropsy is attending a feast held by a leader of the Pharisees and he is somehow seated right in front of Jesus. His position in front of Jesus is important for reasons that Jesus speaks of later in the text, since where one sat at a feast spoke volumes about one’s social position in the hierarchy. Given that fact, which Jesus Himself refers to, we have to ask why the man with dropsy attends the feast and is seated where he is.
One possibility is that he might have been an intruder, a man who suddenly appeared before Jesus to seek healing. But if that were the case — or if that were important — we would assume that something in the text would alert us to it. But there is nothing of the sort. We are just told that he was there in front of Jesus.
So, we wonder, was he perhaps among the invited guests? It may be possible. Since dropsy was often a disease of the rich, it is not impossible to imagine a rich Pharisee with dropsy. However, the fact that after Jesus healed him, He sent him away perhaps tells against that interpretation.
There is another, darker possibility. Maybe the leader of the Pharisees placed the man with dropsy right in front of Jesus at a Sabbath banquet in order to test Jesus. That may sound farfetched, but in Luke’s story, even before we are introduced to the sick man, we are told that the Pharisees were watching Jesus (Luke 14:1). They were lying in wait. That strongly suggest that the man with dropsy was a plant. The Pharisees were looking for an opportunity to pounce on Jesus and he would their means.
Also, this interpretation may be presupposed in the first words of verse 3, which speak of Jesus “answering” the lawyers and the Pharisees — even though they have not spoken. As in some other places in the Gospels, Jesus seems to be answering their thoughts and intentions. Considered with the placing of the man with dropsy and the watching of the Pharisees, this leads me to suspect a plot.
Note that the various possibilities cited above are not entirely mutually exclusive. For example, the man might have been a rich Pharisee with dropsy who was legitimately invited to the feast as part of the conspiracy against Jesus. We cannot help but note that he does not ask Jesus for help or express thanks, in spite of having been healed of an incurable disease. Also, there is nothing said of his faith. As odd as it may sound, the Pharisaic conspiracy theory makes better sense than to assume someone could just walk into the home of a rich leader of the Pharisees and appear at the dinner table. If we assume the conspiracy theory, Jesus sending him away, then, would be a sort of judgement against him and those who plotted against him, as if to say, “You can leave now. Your job for the day is done.”
But the question of why Luke mentions dropsy remains. What makes dropsy special and how does it relate to the context, assuming that it does? Here is where Luke’s medical knowledge comes in. Dropsy is a medical condition in which, stated very simply, water accumulates in the body. In Greek, the word translated dropsy is “hudropkis” from the word “hudor” meaning “water.” One afflicted with dropsy was swollen because of the excess water in the body, but at the same time, thirsty. In the physical affliction, the man with too much water in his body wanted nothing more than more water.
The metaphorical application is obvious and applies to the paragraphs that follow the healing of the man with dropsy. Jesus told a parable about people invited to a wedding and warned them not to be covetous for honor. To be invited itself is actually honor, but some are so filled with lust for honor that they force their way to the best places in the feast. This is a dropsy like affliction of not being satisfied with what one has but lusting always for more, in spite of the fact that the one afflicted is actually killing himself. After all, by seeking too much honor, he may end up suffering dishonor by being asked to sit at a lower place. But there is a cure. Let him seek the lowest place at the table from the beginning.
The master of the feast, by only inviting those who can reward him for the invitation, exhibits similar dropsy-like behavior. His banquet becomes a means of further self-aggrandizement. The man who has wealth enough to hold such a banquet does so for his thirst for even more honor. The reward will involve another banquet to repay his. So, his thirst for honor only feeds his disease. But he can be rescued, like the man cured of dropsy. He can hold a banquet which holds no promise of reward by inviting the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind (14:13).
When those invited to the kingdom banquet refuse
to come, it is because they put their own projects and needs above those of God’s
kingdom (Luke 14:18-20). They are over full of the water of self and thirsty to
drink more of its poisoned well, so they reject the invitation. That is Israel’s
condition in Jesus’ day. It is a nation afflicted with spiritual dropsy.
Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.
[i] Feasting and Social Rhetoric in Luke 14 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
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