Dear Fathers, Friends in Christ,
Jesus said, "Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled and he who humbles himself shall be exalted."
My friends, a few minutes ago, as you listened to the Gospel reading, you heard about the man with dropsy. I really didn't know very much about dropsy. I know that we would say, when we can't hold onto something and we keep dropping it, "I must have dropsy." I guess that's a common use of the word.
Actually, it is a rather antiquated word to describe something that medical people nowadays call edema, which means excessive fluid in the system. I don't pretend to be a doctor but what I did learn about edema is that it isn't a disease in itself, but rather a symptom of something else that is really wrong with a person. Frequently it involves the kidneys or congestive heart failure or some other radical disease that is within the system, such as cancer A person balloons up with all the fluid in his system.
This is the afflicted individual who was standing in front of Jesus at a dinner to which He had been invited. It was obvious the man was very ill. Jesus would have to ask some questions of the people who were assembled there because they were watching Him closely, as Luke tells us.
He asks them a very simple question, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?" Immediately, He put them on the horns of dilemma. If they said what they should have said, "No, it is not right to heal on the Sabbath," for the practice of medicine was specifically forbidden by Jewish law, that would have been absurd. Cleverly, He poses the dilemma. They couldn't answer Jesus' question one way or the other; they very prudently kept their mouths shut.
So Jesus simply healed the man. What a radical transformation must have come over this individual. He was completely changed, completely transformed. He no longer was so bloated. He looked normal. Whatever had caused these symptoms was gone as well. What a miraculous thing Jesus has done!
Now He decides to give the people a little instruction. "Which of you have some beast of burden? If it were to fall into a cistern, wouldn't you pull it out on the Sabbath?" Oddly enough, to do so was allowed in Jewish law. But you couldn't heal or practice medicine on the Sabbath. How absurd! How absolutely crazy!
Jesus continues this instruction for those people who were watching Him. Rather than embarrass His host, who had invited Him to this luncheon (probably after the Sabbath service at the synagogue), He proposes a little parable to them. "When you show up for a wedding, don’t go and grab the best seats at table. Somebody more important than you might have been invited and you would have to give up that place." In Jewish society the seating of guests at a banquet was incredibly complex. It had to do with age and rank and wealth and whatever else was part of the mix. The idea was that the person who ranked highest would sit closest to the host; the lowest, farthest away.
Jesus had just watched them scramble for the best seats at this meal but he doesn't directly criticize them. Instead He says, When you go to a wedding, don't do that. Seek the lowest place and then the host can say, 'Friend, come up higher'." Now He wasn't instructing them on the niceties of etiquette in the Jewish community. Rather He was trying to teach them something else, about their relationship with God; that they should live their lives with honesty, simplicity, and humility.
In order for us to understand, we read that final line in today's Gospel: "Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted." What does that mean? Very simply, you and I must understand the virtue of humility in such a way that we come to realize that before God we are what we are. What a beautiful teaching that comes fast upon the healing of the man with dropsy. He was all bloated. Now Jesus is dealing with people who were bloated with pride. He wants to heal them as well.
He doesn't want us to fall prey to the illness of pride. He who humbled Himself in obedience to His Father, even to the point of death on the cross could give this lesson in humility. "Be honest," He is saying, "about who you are and what you are before God, first and foremost. It is your relationship with your God that is so important. If you exalt yourself, God will put you down. If you humble yourself, God will raise you up.
That is the moral of the parable, if you will. It is a lesson that you and I must understand. Humility is honesty with oneself before God: to be honest about who and what we are; to acknowledge the fact that God has perhaps given us great talents. That is not pride to acknowledge those talents. That is honesty. And it is humility. False humility is to have the gifts and hide them under a bushel basket. False humility is to say, when you know you are able, "Oh, I'm not really good at this at all." You really think in your heart of hearts that you are able. That puffs you up. That gives you "spiritual dropsy". That we don't want .
What we want to have is a simplicity before God that says, "I am what I am. I have these gifts. I have these failings. I acknowledge the fact that I am a sinner before God; that I fail many times a day; that I must seek the forgiveness of my God." If we do that, we are building the kind of humility that Christ our Lord wants us to have.
In the first reading this morning from the fourth chapter of Saint Paul's letter to the Ephesians (That whole fourth chapter is such a beautiful teaching on the unity of the Mystical Body as well as the diversity of gifts within the Body) Paul says,
"I plead with you then, as a prisoner for the Lord, to live a life worthy of the calling you have received with perfect humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another lovingly, making every effort to preserve the unity which has the Spirit as its origin and peace as its binding force."
"This is the way you and I are to be," says Paul. Later on in that chapter, he says very simply, "You must lay aside your former way of life and the old self which deteriorates through illusion and desire." (Illusion is pride.) "Acquire a fresh spiritual way of thinking. You must put on that new man created in God's image whose justice and holiness are born of truth" (Ephesians 4:22-24).
That was quite a luncheon Jesus attended. It started out with the healing of the poor bloated man standing before Him. It ended by pricking the bloat of the people that were assembled, teaching them about true humility. Let this be the word for the week that we carry with us from church this morning. "Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled and he who humbles himself shall be exalted."
Father Ed Bakker,
Priest & Missioner,
Anglican Catholic Church/Original Province,
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne,
Launceston on Tasmania,