Too Big—and Failing! Jesus’ Cure for Affluenza

DropsyBy Ched Myers, 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Aug 28, 2016 (Luke 14:1-14)

Note: This is part of a series of weekly comments on the Lukan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year C, 2016. This week’s gospel text is related to last week’s; see the background comments for last week here. Much of the post below is adapted from a sermon given at Downers Grove (IL) First United Methodist Church on 10/10/10.

Luke 14:2-6 is unaccountably skipped over in the lectionary. Yet it is profoundly germane to last week’s reading, and moreover introduces the theme of the whole sequence through 14:24: namely, the issue of how social power and privilege is mirrored in meals, and what to do about it. So I strongly advocate re-instating this beginning episode as part of this Sunday’s gospel.

Jesus is portrayed at dinner parties much more frequently in Luke than the other gospels. Repeatedly, crucial interactions take place at table, often hosted by Jesus’ political adversaries. Think of Levi the tax collector’s banquet with sinners in Luke 5, or the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with her hair at Simon the Pharisee’s house in Luke 7. In fact, a great banquet is Jesus’ central image for the world redeemed and restored: “People will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the Kingdom of God” (Lk 13:29).

This master metaphor is based upon a decisively down to earth, common scenario drawn from the heart of first century eastern Mediterranean village life. But this banquet is no sentimental “happy meal.” Indeed, as Luke 13:30 puts it, the guest list has been turned upside down: “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” This is because there are issues about justice in the world that must be worked out in order for God’s great banquet to be realized among us. And Luke 14:1-24 is an extended meditation on exactly that.

Eating is an essential human practice, both habitual and symbolic. Food sustains and enriches our communities and cultures. But when there is too little or too much of it, desperation or greed follow. Food brings people together—but also divides them. In ancient Mediterranean society, the shared meal stood at the center of social intercourse. Table fellowship (with whom, and how, and what we eat) reflected the inclusions and exclusions of the wider society. And it still does.

Because the meal table mirrors the body politic, Jesus uses opportunities at dinner parties to teach about justice and inclusion. Moreover, it was a convention in Hellenistic culture that the banquet table was the place where critical public conversation took place—not to mention alliance-building, power brokering and political influencing among elite male guests. If you’ve read any Plato, you’ll recall that the discourses of the great Socrates’ always occurred in the context of symposia, dinner parties-cum-schools of philosophy. So the fact that Jesus ends up making object lessons out of Luke’s mealtime episodes is not itself surprising. What is different is how and what he teaches.

Luke 14 is the most extended banquet narrative, and thus deserves close attention. It describes Jesus’ systematic “deconstruction” of a gala dinner; from the hosts’ perspective, it becomes the “party from hell.” Luke narrates it in four parts; our (extended) gospel reading covers the first three. Unfortunately (or, perhaps mercifully), the lectionary leaves out the culminating parable, which is the punchline to the whole sequence (14:15-24). But that bit of parody, shock and conversion will have to await exposition another time.

The initial healing in 14:1-6 I suggest symbolizes what Jesus is trying to accomplish through the subsequent series of challenges to this unlucky dinner party. The setting is the home of a leader of the Pharisees, so we can assume this is an elite and prestigious gathering. Moreover, it is the Sabbath—a context loaded with expectation and meaning (as we saw in last week’s gospel). We must always remember that the Sabbath tradition is shorthand for the biblical ethos of economic justice. The company is “watching Jesus closely,” and it’s not friendly observation (as was the case in an earlier Sabbath healing story in 6:6-11). As is his way, however, Jesus will soon turn from suspect to prosecutor.

A man appears suddenly (Gk kai idou), as did the bent over woman in the synagogue, suggesting a close symbolic correlation between the disease and the space. He is identified as suffering from “dropsy,” a “medical” term (Gk hudrōpikos) occuring only here in NT. It is an ancient way of describing the swelling of soft tissues due to the accumulation of excess water. Today we would describe this condition as edema due to congestive heart failure. But this was not a biomedical culture, as noted last week; though Luke may have been a physician, most disease was still understood primarily in symbolic terms—and nowhere is that more clearly the case than here.

Michael Gilleland writes: “The view was prevalent in ancient medicine that dropsy sufferers were insatiably thirsty… 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.” Many ancient Greek and Roman writers made this connection, from Aristotle and Cicero: “Diogenes used to liken greedy men to those suffering from dropsy” (Stobaeus). Gilleland gives multiple examples (which are worth looking at if you are skeptical of such symbolic correlation). This “too big” man’s disease thus represents the pathological “spirit of the gathering,” as did that of the “bent over” woman last week. Jesus heals (exorcizes?) this “dis-ease” as the prolegomenon to his serial challenges to the privileges of those invited to this banquet that immediately follow.

In 14:3 Jesus poses a profound question: “Is it lawful to heal people (Gk therapeuō) on the Sabbath, or not?” (see Mk 3:4). This can be seen as a sort of “Deuteronomic ultimatum,” evoking the memory of Moses on the mountain, overlooking the Promised Land (Dt 30). There the prophet famously says the gathered people: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity… Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (30:15-19). This is carefully choreographed political theatre, a dramatic moment that goes to the heart of the matter, asking: What exactly are we about as a people? We Americans might think similarly of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, and a century later, Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln memorial, which challenged white America “to keep the promises you made on paper.”

The presenting problem in the cultural context of Luke’s story was Torah’s prohibition against “work” on the Sabbath. Jesus will point out widely acknowledged exceptions, but he is not focusing on legal minutia. Rather, he is asking a much deeper question about the very purpose of Sabbath liberation, as we saw last week (Lk 13:14-16 outlines his argument in greater detail). In the face of this object lesson, Jesus’ opponents “kept silent” (Gk suchazō)—a classic “no comment.” Such studied ambivalence is the refuge of political scoundrels who imagine they are too powerful to be called to account. Or, as the most recent federal bail-out of the banking and mortgage industry revealed, members of the ruling class deem their institutions “too big to fail.” There is a little of such avoidance in all of us, of course, especially when Jesus is asking hard questions. And there is a lot of silence in our churches around issues of economic disparity.

Meanwhile, Jesus acts, with or without our approval. He takes ahold of the man, cures him, and releases him (14:4). This last verb (apoluō) is sometimes used by Luke for releasing someone from sin (6:37); or forgiving debt (as we saw last week, 13:12); or setting a prisoner free (23:16-25). It is, in other words, a Jubilee verb. Jesus turns back to the silent spectators with a cutting rhetorical question: “If any 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?” The audience would be well aware that Torah enjoins aid to a neighbor’s ox or ass if it just strays, much less falls into a well (Dt 22:1-4). Rescuing a living being of great value is not only allowed on the Sabbath, it is commanded!

Jesus is using legal argument to challenge the conventional interpretation of the law and its lack of moral imagination. This is exactly what Martin Luther King did in his public actions of civil disobedience. For both Jesus and King, the issue was not the particular legal prohibition, but whether people who were being ignored or excluded by it were valued as equals. The episode ends abruptly with the report that “They could not object to him” (Lk 14:6).

The next episode, 14:7-11 moves us into “from the parlor into the dining room,” so to speak. Jesus now goes on the offensive, raising questions about the “seating chart.” As in a wedding or State dinner today, politics and power determined where and with whom one sat at a symposium. Jesus scandalizes his fellow guests by inviting them to move voluntarily from positions of privilege downward, so as to subvert possible host strategies of demotion. Needless to say, in antiquity—as in our world—few people wish to give up status or position. This challenge to downward mobility meant to undermine the prevailing system of hierarchical patronage, and by implication, the entire social system of domination.

To a room full of executives intent on ladder climbing, Jesus introduces the radical notion that true social transformation comes from “below.” The apostle Paul later argues (Phil 2:3-7) that Jesus bet his life on the upside down truth that the world can only be renewed from the bottom up. Luke doesn’t bother to record the audience’s reaction, but we can easily imagine it; in fact, we likely share the shock. But Jesus isn’t done offending etiquette.

In the third part of this sequence (14:12-14), he turns his attention to the “guest list.” This time his critique is directed to his host, who by now is surely calling security to get this troublemaker removed. Jesus suggests that rather than following the convention of inviting one’s circle of friends and family in the expectation of receiving back in kind, he should give priority to those who cannot reciprocate. In this traditional honor culture, patronage was the primary mechanism for building influence. The patron class built prestige by hosting social equals (in order to do deals) and social inferiors (in order to secure them as indebted dependents). For a second time, Jesus appeals only to divine justice: “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (14:14). This invocation of judgment, however, carries a certain ominous tone for those at the top of the social hierarchy. Which is most of us, too.

The deteriorating dinner party comes to a head in the last section (15-24), in which Jesus levies an extended parable of a dinner party gone bad (such irony!), a tale that concludes with the surprising conversion of a “jilted” host to an embrace of solidarity with the poor. We aren’t told whether Jesus’ host “gets” this parable the way the host in the story “gets it”; that is left dangling like an unresolved chord. No wonder it’s left out of the lectionary.

Which brings us back to that weird healing that started this whole train wreck of a dinner party. The Roman poet Ovid, writing in the generation just before Jesus, says about the affluent:

Riches have grown and with them the frantic lust for wealth, and they who have 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.

Most of us middle class folk suffer from the similar disease we might call “Affluenza.” But Jesus just wants to heal us. The whole purpose of this extended dinner party narrative in Luke 14 is to demonstrate, through showing and telling, that “release” from the plague of dropsy/Affluenza comes only through abandoning privilege and entitlement in order to explore a life of downward mobility! The man healed at the beginning was, to bend Wall Street’s metaphor, “too big—and thus failing.” But he was healed, anticipating the radical conversion of the wealthy host at the end of the sequence in Jesus’ parable. In the imagination of Luke, the healing of a body captive to dropsy is a metaphor for the liberation of a body politic beholden to patronage and social disparity. To discover solidarity with those who have too little is the only way that those of us who have too much can regain our humanity.

Can all this be derived from a dinner party? Well, we need think only of those four African American men who sat down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC on Feb 1st, 1960. That determined, if unrehearsed, bit of political theatre ended up launching a sit-in movement across the South, which in turn breathed new life into the Civil Rights movement, which ended up changing our nation forever. Never underestimate the power of a strategic meal.

The bad news is that Jesus diagnoses Affluenza, without equivocation, as a fatal pathology. The good news is that he can apprehend us, heal us, and liberate us. The question only is whether we will accept his powerful medicine.

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