By Justin Rossow
As dropsies, though filled with fluid, crave drink,
so money-lovers, though loaded with money, crave more of it;
yet both to their own demise.
—Diogenes the Cynic (ca 300 BC)
One Sabbath day after worship (in Luke 14), Jesus is invited over to dinner at the house of a local Pharisee. Other prominent religious leaders round out the guest list, making this a gathering of the religiously well-trained and well-practiced; a kind of Sunday luncheon for elders, pastors, and theology professors.
An uninvited guest also shows up: a man suffering from a condition called “dropsy.” More of a symptom than a disease, dropsy causes your body to retain water to the point of serious harm or even death. But here’s the kicker: a dropsy is always thirsty. This man can’t get enough of what’s killing him.
Some 300 years before the dinner party in Luke 14, the Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic wrote: “As dropsies, though filled with fluid, crave drink, so money-lovers, though loaded with money, crave more of it; yet both to their own demise.”
That’s the physical condition of the unwelcome guest at the Pharisee’s religious reception. It turns out, it’s also the spiritual condition of so many of these good, religious leaders gathered for the feast.
Did you know the Pharisees are good, religious people? They get kind of a bad rap in the Gospels, but Pharisees are only the bad guys because their good, religious lives don’t have any room for Jesus.
The Pharisees knew their Bible. They read Scripture more often than we do, and had more Bible verses memorized than you or I would even dare to attempt. The Pharisees prayed, like a lot. And they prayed well (and liked it when people heard them pray such good prayers so often). The Pharisees gave generously (though the Gospel of Luke does identify them as money-lovers), donating 10% of their entire income, down to the mint leaves from their garden boxes (and they liked it when you knew how generously and meticulously they gave).
Did you know that Pharisees were such good, religious people that they held the equivalent of Outreach and Evangelism Conferences? The Pharisees actually wanted the lost to be saved. Their outreach strategy was simple: live good, religious lives so well—and display the benefits of living good, religious lives so clearly—that sinners out there would see the good life, give up on their sinful ways, and join the club reserved for good, religious people.
Jesus had a very different strategy: go hang out with sinners. Sparks usually flew when Jesus and the Pharisees got together, in part because they were both after the eternal souls of the very same people, but had very different ideas about how to reach them and bring them into the fold.
The Pharisees would never welcome a dropsy to their religious luncheon, not because they were bad people, but because they were so good. Dropsy makes you unclean by Levitical law, unfit for the presence of God, and eating with someone who is unclean makes you unclean, too. Interacting with a dropsy would not only ruin their theological lunch, it could prevent them from fulfilling certain religious duties for a time. So when Jesus engages this man with dropsy, the religious bystanders are on pins and needles; this could go very bad, very fast.
Then Jesus asks them if it’s lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not! These Pharisees don’t have an answer, not because they are so depraved, but because they are so concerned about being good. They not only followed the religious laws around the Sabbath, that covenant sign of their relationship with God, they made extra rules around the Sabbath laws just to make sure they stayed in-bounds. Now this Jesus guy is looking for Sabbath loop-holes? What kind of trouble is he trying to stir up?
Jesus, saddened and frustrated by their hard, religious hearts, heals the thirsty man with dropsy and sends him away. Then Jesus turns his attention to the Pharisees, the spiritual dropsies at his dinner table.
Jesus notices how they all want the best, most honored seats at the table. (After all, good lives reap good rewards, and the only way to show sinners how good the good life can be is to gain very public recognition for being good.) Jesus has a different idea: make yourself low and humble, because God raises up the lowly. Don’t throw religious parties for the religious people who can pay you back; invite the low, humble, unclean—people who can’t pay back your goodness with their own. That’s how God’s Kingdom works.
Jesus’ call to humility is met with another round of boasting. With eyes blinded by self-righteousness and ears plugged by his own pride, one of the fine, upstanding guests responds to all this talk about banquets by saying, “How blessed are the people [like me, of course] who will get to eat and drink in the Kingdom of God!”
Like spiritual dropsies, these good, religious people are choking on their own religiosity, all the while craving more and more of the self-righteousness in which they are drowning.
So Jesus tries again. This time the punchline of the parable is a direct threat to the self-righteousness and self-confidence of these spiritual dropsies: none of the invited guests get to taste a morsel of the King’s banquet, even though they RSVP’d yes.
Their rejection of their relationship with the King leaves them out in the cold, stuck with their own pride and self-sufficiency. Those who sit down to eat and drink in the Kingdom are the blind, the lame, the unclean people (like the man with dropsy) who aren’t good enough to come in. Even people who are outside of the community, people who live out where the foreigners and sinners and, well, outsiders live—they are gently taken by the hand and escorted into the banquet over their own objections that they aren’t worthy enough, they aren’t good enough, they can’t repay this grace.
And that, ultimately, is the point. The ones who know they don’t deserve the invitation and can’t repay the generosity of the King, they are the ones who get to sit down at table and eat and drink in the Kingdom. Self-sufficient, self-righteous, self-aggrandizing spiritual dropsies—filled to the brim with their own religiosity, but craving even more—need not apply.
The water a dropsy craves is deadly, not because the water is bad, but because a disease makes it poisonous. The good, religious activities—like prayer, or fasting, or Scripture reading, or worship—that these good, religious Pharisees crave are to them a poison, not because these religious disciplines are bad, but because they are feeding a self-righteous self-sufficiency that doesn’t need Jesus.
That kind of spiritual disease, a kind of religious dropsy, is a danger for anyone who tries to take faith seriously. By wanting to grow in your faith, by wanting to take a next step, by desiring a more faithful walk, and living out your faith, you become susceptible to one of the most devious tricks in the tempter’s arsenal: your religious activity can insulate you from needing Jesus.
How do you know when you have been infected with the kind of self-righteous self-sufficiency that can kill your faith? Maybe it’s hard to tell all on your own; maybe you need a trusted friend to help in your own diagnosis. But I think a continual thirst for more may be a kind of early warning system.
If you are working hard a taking a next step, if you are active, and engaged, and reading Scripture, and praying, and paying attention in worship, and serving in the community and serving at your local congregation, and you look around at all the good, religious things you are doing, and you feel exhausted, but at the same time, you think you should be doing more … well, that’s kind of normal. And it may also be a sign that you are getting so religious that religion is getting in the way of Jesus.
If you do all the right spiritual things, and your calendar is chock full of spiritual activities, and you still find yourself asking, “Why am I so spiritually thirsty all the time?” it could be that a kind of spiritual dropsy has set in.
If all the external trappings of a Christian culture give you a sense of value or maybe even pride, but they don’t drive you to needing Jesus, maybe you are so full of Christian religion that you are in danger of drowning.
You aren’t alone. Don’t despair. Take it to Jesus.
I find great comfort in the fact that the Apostle Paul was a Pharisee before Jesus knocked him off his donkey. Jesus heals even spiritual dropsies. Jesus heals even me.
The answer to spiritual dropsy and religious workaholism is not to try harder or to do better. The answer also isn’t to give up on doing good, religious things and try to be more sinful, so you need more forgiveness. (“Shall we sin more so grace may abound more? Are you nuts??” [Romans 6:1-2, loose translation].)
The answer Jesus gives to the people who are burdened with their own spiritual pride is quite simple: get back to desperately needing Jesus.
In John 7, Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink!” The last parable in Luke 14 ends with the outcasts being led by the Messenger of the Invitation to sit down to eat and drink with the King at the banquet table. The answer to too much religious self-sufficiency isn’t more religion. It certainly isn’t more sin. It’s just more Jesus.
Keep reading your Bible; and let the Bible drive you to deeper dependence on Jesus. Keep praying, more and more often: and make your prayers a desperate cry for more Jesus in your life. Work hard (with a friend) to find and take a next step, run a faith experiment, try something new, engage the adventure of discipleship; and at every turn, let every discovery, every act of courage or exploration be driven by a deep need for the presence and the grace of Jesus in your everyday walk.
Don’t get so good at taking a next step that you forget about following Jesus.
And if you do find all this religious work is leaving you dry and thirsty, don’t just try harder. And don’t just give up. Do what the dropsy in Luke 14 did: go find Jesus, and trust his healing.
Reading this far in a blog on discipleship is a rather dangerous thing; you could start feeling pretty good about yourself. As you get “better” at following Jesus, remember that one of the best ways to describe “discipleship” is simply this: discipleship is growing more and more in the understanding of how much you need Jesus all the time, for absolutely everything.
Don’t be shocked or surprised if you discover you’ve fallen into a habit of spiritual self-sufficiency; it happens even to the best followers; or, rather, especially to the best followers. Jesus loves you so much, he will show up at your dropsy party or knock you off your donkey if that’s what it takes to bring you back into a posture of dependence, a posture that receives the Kingdom the only way the Kingdom can be received: as a gift.
Featured Image: I got to share Luke 14 at a Lent chapel service at St. Paul Lutheran School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That’s me, piling on all kind of righteous things (water bottles) and wanting more and more. Mr. C. has my hold-onto cross in his hands; I had to give it to him so I could hold more water bottles. In the end, I couldn’t receive the cross back because my hands were so full, and I didn’t want to let go of the water bottles because I wanted more water. So Mr. C. did me the favor of shaking me from behind so I dropped all of my self-righteous self-sufficiency (water bottles) and then he gave me Jesus (the hold-onto cross). Thanks, Mr. C.