This biblical reflection was presented at the Saturday morning, June 2, 2007, plenary session of the CCHF conference at North Park University.
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a ruler of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.
Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took hold of him and healed him, and released him. 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?” And they could not reply to this.
As we turn to this passage, a story of healing of the man with dropsy, what are some of the parts of this story that catch our attention?
Going to eat a meal with the ruler of the Pharisees: who else was at the table?
Watching him closely: why?
On the Sabbath, mentioned three times: what significance?
A man with dropsy: what is this, especially in ancient times?
Jesus’ questions: okay to heal on the Sabbath? Okay to rescue your family or property on the Sabbath?
No replies to Jesus’ questions: why?
The man was not only healed, but released: from what?
According to Molina and Rohrbough in “Meals in Mediterranean Antiquity," "Meals in antiquity were what anthropologists call ‘ceremonies.’ Unlike ‘rituals,’ which confirm and effect change of status, ceremonies are regular predictable events in which rules and statuses in a community are affirmed or legitimated. In other words, the microcosm of the meals is parallel to the macrocosm of everyday social relations. By inviting Jesus to dine at this house, the ruler of the Pharisees was accepting Jesus as a social equal. Luke, however, reports that guests at the dinner table were watching Jesus closely—a not unlikely situation given the social coding that was imbedded in all the actions at a meal.” 1
Who likely was at the table with Jesus and the ruler of the Pharisees? These would have been male, elite, those reflecting the social hierarchy, which would include bankers and creditors, as an integral part of the system. In agrarian societies such as biblical Israel, the cycle of poverty began when a family had to sell off its land in order to service a debt, and reached its conclusion when landless peasants could only sell their labor, becoming bond-slaves. So indebtedness is the primary way people fall into poverty. Jesus knows this system. He confronts the system directly in the Disciples Prayer in Luke 11:4, praying: “and forgive us our sins/debts as we forgive everyone indebted to us.” The word for sin and debt is the same in Aramaic, Jesus' language, not the separation into moral and economic meanings that we tend to read.
Jesus also confronts this debt system in his inaugural address in Luke 4:19 saying: “proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord's Favor." Both of these pronouncements come from the biblical economic vision of jubilee found in Leviticus 25:
- Release of Community members from debt;
- Return of Forfeited land to its original owner;
- Freeing of slaves.
There is no wonder why the folks at this table were watching him, and while they were watching him, Jesus is looking to see who needs to he healed, and “just then in front of him there is a man who had dropsy.”
The English word dropsy comes from Greek hydrops, from hydor=water. The medical term edema is more commonly used nowadays for this affliction, which consists of swelling due to accumulation of excess fluid. The view was prevalent in ancient medicine that sufferers from dropsy were always thirsty, and that drinking did nothing to alleviate their thirst and in fact made their condition worse.
Naturally, this led to a comparison between avarice (a disease of the soul) and dropsy (a disease of the body). In both cases, what the sufferer wanted (more water or more possessions) only aggravated the problem. 2
Here are some quotes from ancient sources to illustrate this understanding:
- Stoaeus (on Diogenes the Cynic): He used to liken greedy men to those suffering from dropsy. For the latter, although filled with liquid, still desired to drink.
- Tales, On Poverty and Wealth (pl 39 Hense): If anyone wishes to free himself or another from want and poverty, let him not seek possessions for himself. For as Bion says, it is as if someone wishing to stop a dropsy patient’s thirst, were not to cure the dropsy but furnish the patient with fountains and rivers.
- Ovid, Fasti: Riches have grown and with them the frantic lust for wealth, and they who the most possessions still crave for more. They strive to gain that they may waste, and then to repair their wasted fortunes, and thus they feed their vices by ringing the changes on them. So he whose belly swells with dropsy, the more he drinks, the thirstier he grows.
- Cicero, Paradoxes of the Stoics: For the thirst of desire is never satisfied, but those who have their luxuries are tortured not only by the wish to get more, but also by the fear of losing what they already have.
- Horace, Odes: Worry and hunger for greater things accompany money as it grows.
- Juvenal: The love of money grows in proportion as one’s income.
We usually read these Biblical texts from our medicalized or scientific worldview-influenced interpretation of scripture. But in this ancient worldview context, the man with dropsy is one who cannot get enough; thirsty, but the water makes him worse. So Jesus heals him. These healing stories speak to not just the physical healing, but also to the larger system that needs healing. In other words, this political body (the man with dropsy) has to do with body politics. The body politics is about a system of oppression, debt and poverty; a symbol not meant to turn the healing into simply a metaphor. Intervention on behalf of a person is an intervention within a political system, so every healing becomes political.
Is not Jesus telling them that the problem is not poverty, but the problem is wealth? The problem with (this system of economic control) is that it takes up too much and the poor cannot survive. So we see this teaching of Sabbath economics, which is a returning to the economy of grace where there is enough for everyone, is the underlying theme.
So this healing ends with "and Jesus released him.” The man was released from his insatiable thirst in front of the gathered group with their insatiable appetites. Then Jesus asks them, is it okay to save a child or animal on the Sabbath? Or another way of stating the question would be: In an emergency situation, would you not act? Jesus seems to be saying that this healing of the man with dropsy is like that, an emergency situation, and to cure this disease is not bound by the purity codes of the Sabbath. So pulling out a child or an ox drowning in a well and pulling out the man drowning with dropsy and affluenza (also a disease of the growth of craving) are emergent acts beyond Sabbath restrictions. Jesus sees who is suffering and heals them. He is not dazzled by opulence; he has love even for enemies.
So the dinner guests were silent and they could not reply when presented with the truth beyond this healing. That is what I often do when presented with a truth about myself that demands change, something I do not want to deal with, and I turn silent. Confronted with the truth about their part in an oppressive system, the dinner guests had no reply.
In doing social analysis and looking at social systems, we can see that everyone aspires upward; looking to the highly visible, the rich, the famous, the beautiful, and this legitimates power and envies power. Nobody wants to move downward. We scaptegoat downward. But in the gospel, we have some of the only literature in which the heroes are poor people. It is the poor who have more intact communities of sharing and support.
Jesus offers us healing from our thirst and appetites of craving. He does this by recapturing the vision of Sabbath economics, the divine economy of abundance or enough for everyone, which is the kingdom of God, manifested. That we might truly understand and join with Jesus in the Disciples Prayer that he taught us:
May Your name be hallowed;
May Your Kingdom Come;
Give us each day your daily bread;
Forgive us our debts as we forgive everyone indebted to us.
1 Social-Science: Commentary on the Synoptic Gospel, “Meals in Modern Antiquity," Bruce Molina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Fortress, 1992.
2 Meyers, Ched, Bartimaeus Institute, January 22-26, 2007. Quotes from ancient sources as well as the research/teaching on dropsy/avarice are from this workshop.
Lance Loberg, M.D., is a physician in Salem, OR. He was a co-founder of CCHF in Mississippi in 1978-79.