The Story Behind the Story
Text: Luke 14: 1-6
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. 2 Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. 3 And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” 4 But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. 5 Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” 6 And they could not reply to this.
I find this to be a fascinating text because as you begin to ask a few questions, or do a bit of research around some of the details in the story, it becomes even richer than it is on the surface. There are a number of things in this text that I don’t think are there by accident, but in order to reap the full benefit it requires a bit of knowledge around some of the details.
For starters, I think it is significant that this story only appears in the Gospel according to Luke; it is not present in Matthew or Mark. This means the source for this story is either unknown to us, or is simply a story or example that comes to us from the imagination of our author. I think the latter option is likely, that Luke created this story, and I think that for a number of reasons.
The author of Luke, as you may already know is also the author of the book of Acts. Through a careful reading and interpretation of these two works, it becomes known to us that Luke was called on a number of different occasions the beloved physician. One of these references is found in Colossians, 4: 14 where there is just a simple greeting; but it is believed that the reference here to Luke as the beloved physician is the same Luke as the author of the Gospel.
The only reason I bring this to our attention is that in our story that I read a few minutes ago, the man who was healed had a disease known as dropsy. Now, I don’t know about you, but dropsy isn’t necessarily part of my vocabulary on a regular basis. So I think it is interesting that Luke chose a rather obscure disease to have healed when there are many other stories of healing from things that are much more common. In our New Testament we find many stories of lepers being healed, evil spirits being cast out, blind people being healed, deformities of hands and other limbs; but this is the only story of dropsy. The fact that the story comes from a physician I think is significant. It makes me think there may be a reason that Luke chose dropsy for this healing scene.
At first glance, this story appears to be about healing on the Sabbath, which of course it is, but I believe there may be some hidden significance here as well. But in order for us to uncover this hidden significance, it is necessary for us to take another look at this rather obscure disease called dropsy.
If you try to do a bit of research on dropsy, you will discover that this term is really no longer used; it is considered to be an ancient description of a couple of different ailments. The first type of situation that dropsy was used to describe back in the day, is now referred to as edema, or a swelling of a particular area. In today’s medical vernacular the type of edema is usually considered a part of the diagnosis, so you could have lymphedema, for example, which is swelling as it pertains to our lymph system. There are other terms that relate to specific types of swelling, but edema can be used to describe the swelling from a bee sting, and sprained ankle, an allergic reaction and a host of other situations.
I believe it is unlikely that the man in our story was suffering from anything as simple as a bee sting or sprained ankle. Edema can be caused by certain deficiencies in our blood, or certain organ malfunctions like our liver or kidneys, so there are any number of ailments our subject in the story may have experienced that were described as dropsy.
In a similar fashion, congestive heart failure, which is a specific type of edema, was also considered to be part of dropsy. But dropsy in ancient times wasn’t necessarily only congestive heart failure, it was heart trouble of almost any kind. So we actually have two possible ailments from which our man in the story was healed; abnormal swelling or heart disease of almost any kind. I think both are significant to our story.
Luke, being a physician would not miss the irony contained in this story and I believe this is intentional on the part of the author.
The position of the Pharisees and the lawyers in this story were watching Jesus carefully and were looking for a way to discredit him. They were steeped in tradition and strict adherents to the law. They considered themselves to be righteous individuals and probably felt that God looked more favorably on them than the rest of society. They were spiritually elevated, in their own minds, over anyone else.
So in addition to being about healing on the Sabbath, I think this is a story of contrasts. Jesus could heal the physical impact of dropsy on the man in our story. But the man who was healed was not the only person in the story suffering from a form of dropsy. I believe this particular disease was chosen as a metaphor by our physician author, because dropsy also represented what was wrong with the Pharisees that had gathered there that day.
You see, the Pharisees also had unnatural swelling. Their pride was swollen. Their ego was swollen and there self-righteousness were all swollen out of control. But Jesus could not heal this disease. In order to be healed, you must want to be healed.
The other form of dropsy that the man in our story could have been suffering from was some form of heart disease. The Pharisees also had this in common with our man who was healed. They, too, had heart disease. They had heart disease in the form of lack of compassion. They had heart disease in the inability to allow the individual to be more important than the law. They had heart disease in the sense that scheming and conspiring with one another to make Jesus look bad was OK with them. They had heart disease in the sense that power and prestige began to mean more than love and kindness and common sense.
Jesus had no problem healing the physical aspects of dropsy for someone who wanted to be healed. There wasn’t much Jesus could do about the emotional and psychological dropsy that the Pharisees suffered from, particularly when they didn’t view themselves as sick. Yes, this story is about healing on the Sabbath, but I think there is story behind the story.
We may no longer use the term dropsy to describe certain medical conditions. But the dropsy conditions from which the Pharisees suffered are still around today. Swollen egos and heart disease are still present everywhere we turn. Jesus called the Pharisees out on their hypocrisy and the text said they had no answer. I believe we are charged with the same task. We should not be quiet in the face of swollen egos, swollen self-righteousness, swollen self-importance and the kind of heart disease that continues to oppress, continues to marginalize and continues to threaten the very existence of those less fortunate than the rest of us.
Make no mistake. Jesus gave us clear instructions in Matthew 25 that when we do not give food to the hungry, or drink to the thirsty, when we do not care for the poor or the sick, when we do not do these things to the least of these, we do not do it to Jesus himself.
Even in the Hebrew Bible we have the commandments that lean toward social justice. Micah 6:8 is a prime example; we are to do justice, not just talk about it, but do it. Or as Nike would say: “Just do it”. The text in Micah also says we are to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. This is what the Lord requires of us. It is listed as a requirement, not a suggestion.
It is a form of heart disease that cuts benefits for the poor. It is a form of heart disease that pushes people off of health insurance. It is a form of heart disease that continues to create tax benefits for the wealthy and eliminate safety nets for those who are hungry or thirsty or in need of clothing. It is also a violation of scriptural mandates that are repeated throughout the Old and New Testaments.
Jesus called the Pharisees out on their hypocrisy and they had no answer. I believe we are called to do likewise.
And that is food for thought.