Don't Leave Out the Dropsy

First Reactions to Luke 14:1-14

I re-read my post of 2019:

My first thought, then and now, is: Don’t leave out the dropsy. (vv2-6) It's part of the story. Dropsy was a disease of the rich. is about greed, self inflation, getting the best place at the table. Read more about it in my 2019 post.

Dropsy was common. Galen described Rome as, "This populous city, where daily ten thousand people can be discovered suffering from jaundice, and ten thousand from dropsy.

"Dropsy is used widely in the ancient Greek world, particularly in the writings of philosphers, and it is frequently a metaphor for greed and wealth."  (Chad Hartsock: Biblical Interpretation, Volume 21 (3): 341 – Jan 1, 2013. And see also here.)  In other words, dropsy was a well-known and proverbial disease.  We are meant to find meaning in this particular form of illness.

The reading from Luke ends up exhorting us away from the dropsy of  self-aggrandisement and self-promotion, because these are an idolatry. My idolatry is to pretend that I am a self-made person. If we seek to make ourselves—the name for this is social-climber, even for those of us who remain very realistic about how far we can climb—then we are inevitably based in a quid pro quo mindset.

The dangers of this mindset are clear from words by Karoline Lewis which I quoted at the end of my post:

Karoline Lewis:

The problem with a quid pro quo mentality is quantification. How do you measure or calculate repayment of love, of mercy? And the fact that we think we can is a rather striking theological problem. We tend to forget that our beliefs about faith and discipleship are also claims about who we think God is. If we insist that our faith, our salvation, is dependent upon an equal rate of exchange between God and us, then we need to ask ourselves, in what kind of God do we believe? What happens if we don’t measure up? And what makes us think we can assume certain systems to quantify the grace of God?

I think this is one of the most poignant and perilous aspects of ministry -- that a quantification of our work might actually be the result of some sort of equivalency of effort: higher attendance, thriving programs, more money in the offering plates...  But even worse? We then run the risk of preaching and teaching that faith is contractual. That relationship with God is dependent on a nearsighted notion that God works within the world’s insistence on agreements and bargains; transferences and contingencies; a quid pro quo relationship rather than a relationship made possible by the unmerited, unearned, unwarranted, undeserved love of God.

Or we could consider the rather sad story of a party I once attended. (The story as I tell it, deliberately echoes parts of my commentary earlier in the post.)

My boss decided to throw a party for some of our key clients. We had a client set who were good folk to work with. During the night, someone asked me where I lived. (I live in a suburb which measures bottom, or one or two up, in just about every social index you can think of.) I uttered the fateful name.

The buzz around the table stopped abruptly in a moment of acute social embarrassment. I remember the person speaking to me averting their eyes, and then changing the subject. It occurred to me later, that the question was itself loaded; who is this employee that she is inviting to the banquet; this outsider to the leafy green of the eastern suburbs? They were watching me closely.

The sad thing about this meal was that the guest list was carefully curated, I think. Certain of our less pleasant clients were apparently not invited, regardless of their monetary value to the business. But because the guests were only able to think in quid pro quo terms, they were not able to imagine that perhaps the employee who would crawl about under their desks chasing computer cables and phone lines, had been invited mostly because... the boss liked him. Much less that they, too, were invited because she liked them! They did not see the honour with which she had gifted— graced— them.

What gifting from God, what simple yet profoundly healing insight that God likes us might we be blind to if we live in a quid pro quo, status measuring, social climbing existence? Might we, in our blindness, even reject God!?

My last thought is sparked by a quotation I made from previous work by Nathan Nettleton. He was writing about Jesus' Sabbath breaking disruptions. Nathan said

The Jewish people survived, and the two main identity markers that helped them to maintain their distinctive identity were Sabbath-keeping and Kosher food. Some people add circumcision to that list, but since it is a lot less visible and only includes half the population, I’d suggest that its third place is a long way back. But without being so careful about what they do on the Sabbath and about what they eat, the Jewish community would have long since ceased to exist. So when Jesus starts playing fast and loose with the accepted rules about what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath and what you can and can’t eat, the stakes could not have been higher. The very identity of the people of God was at stake.  

How can we be church, how can we maintain our identities, if we do not have rules and standards? Where will our identity be?  But rules and standards default to exclusion. And they also foster social climbing. Our human insecurities mean we self-making idolators are inevitably attracted to keeping the rules better than others. By the standards of much current western culture, even having more money than you means I have kept the rules about how to be a successful human being better than you have kept them.

When we follow Jesus words

12 He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous...’

then we are inviting the rabble into our gatherings, which means that by normal human standards we are losing control of who we are, losing our identity, as Nathan would say. Luke is not condemning Jewish people and practice in this pericope. He is challenging the church not to seek to preserve itself!

All this reminds me of Kevin Hart's poem, The Last Day.

When the last day comes
A ploughman in Europe will look over his shoulder
And see the hard furrows of earth
Finally behind him, he will watch his shadow
Run back into his spine.

It will be morning
For the first time, and the long night
Will be seen for what it is,
A black flag trembling in the sunlight.
On the last day

Our stories will be rewritten
Each from the end,
And each will hear the fields and rivers clap
And under the trees

Old bones
Will cover themselves with flesh;
Spears, bullets, will pluck themselves
From wounds already healed,
Women will clasp their sons as men

And men will look
Into their palms and find them empty;
There will be time
For us to say the right things at last,
To look into our enemy’s face

And see ourselves,
Forgiven now, before the books flower in flames,
The mirrors return our faces,
And everything is stripped from us,
Even our names.

© 2003, Kevin Hart
From: FlameTree: Selected Poems
Publisher: Bloodaxe/Paperbark,


I first read this when the barbarity of ISIS was at its peak, and the hope of this stanza stunned me!

It will be morning
For the first time, and the long night
Will be seen for what it is,
A black flag trembling in the sunlight.
On the last day

But then I was shocked by the last lines:

And see ourselves,
Forgiven now, before the books flower in flames,
The mirrors return our faces,
And everything is stripped from us,
Even our names.

Everything is stripped from us / Even our names.

This is the final completion of Creation! We become who we were made to be, rather than who we thought we should be. We are no longer self built, self inflated, beings who seek to create themselves.  The long pretence, with all its agonies, is over.

When we get past status;
when we get past sitting down at the bottom, or inviting the poor, so that we can get a better seat;
when we stop seeking to maintain and protect the identity of the church, but invite in the rabble who may destroy us—no, who will destroy our precious identity,
then we have begun to follow Jesus to a new Jerusalem.

Andrew Prior (2022)

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