Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

Ave Maria!
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost A D 2004
On Spiritual Hydropsy

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Prayers in time of Windstorm

    The events in today’s Gospel reading are found only in Saint Luke’s Gospel.  Luke we know to have been a physician; probably a converted pagan from the city of Antioch in what is today Syria.  His interest in medical matters influenced his writing to some degree—the man he described in this passage was not merely sick, but suffering from a specific illness.  In the ancient world, that illness was called “hydropsy,” or “dropsy” for short—the modern term is “edema.” The essence of the condition is the gathering of body fluids—“water,” if you will—at places in the body where they don’t belong, and where they will interfere with the normal pressure and movements of the body parts.

    It will help to understand this reading if we recall that the Jewish observance of the Sabbath is very strict by our standards—the religious Jew not only refrains from manual labor on the Sabbath, but also from just about every conceivable activity that might be called “work.” He drives no animal, he cooks no food, and he travels no more than the short distance to his place of worship.  When Jesus inquired of the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” they refused to answer.  In all likelihood, each of them was afraid to give the logical answer for fear of appearing too liberal in the interpretation of the law.

    Perhaps after our Lord healed the man with dropsy, they gave some indication of disapproval.  In any event, our Lord addressed them with scorn for their hypocritical attitude, which would have allowed the sick man to continue in his suffering, rather than relaxing their typically rigid ideas about the Mosaic Law: You wouldn’t let your animal fall into a pit on the Sabbath and wait until the next day to help him out—how could you be any less considerate of a son of Israel? Again, they could or would do no more than remain silent, for fear of having to agree with our Lord.

    Jesus used the occasion of this silence as an opportunity to demonstrate the hypocrisy in the Pharisees’ lack of humility.  Just as the man sick with dropsy had been puffed up with the accumulated fluids of his illness, our Lord was about to show the Pharisees that they were puffed up with pride.  They were “full of themselves,” as we say, colloquially.  The man with dropsy had been cured, but now it was for the Pharisees to cure themselves of an illness that was figuratively the same.

    The Pharisees, you will recall, were fond of social acclaim.  Not only did they keep the Mosaic Law, but they wanted to be known by others as being particularly rigid in the Law.  Perhaps more to the point, they wanted to be seen keeping the law, on the belief that this would enhance their social position.  In Saint Matthew’s Gospel our Lord describes them:

    They bind heavy and insupportable burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders: but with a finger of their own they will not move them.  And all their works they do to be seen by men. For they widen their phylacteries and enlarge the tassels of their cloaks.  [That would be like one of us taking the crucifix down from the wall to wear around his neck, instead of wearing something of jewelry size!] And they love the first places at feasts and the first chairs in the synagogues.[1]

    Today our Lord indicates that this foolish pride and self importance will very often be the root of its own undoing.  The man who makes himself something when he is nothing, will be found out and exposed and embarrassed, when someone comes on the scene who actually is a man of important achievement.

    We only read a few verses today, but the Gospel goes on to recognize the importance of self renunciation; of not being preoccupied with either the wealth or the respect of the world; of not being overly interested in the company of the wealthy and the influential while despising the lowly and the poor.

    Now, you might ask, “What is wrong with wealth and respect?” The answer, of course, is that, in themselves, there is nothing wrong with them—one can do a great deal of good with money, and being respected for one’s good deeds and upright life might well serve as a model for imitation by many.  The problem with wealth and respect arises when we seek them for the same reason as did the Pharisees—when we seek them because we esteem ourselves to be better than other people, and therefore more deserving.  We saw that a few weeks ago when we heard about the Pharisee invidiously comparing himself to the Publican: “O God, I thank You that I am not like the rest of men....”[2]

    Ultimately, the disease of being puffed up with self importance, is the source of just about any sin you can name.  If I think that I am “more important” than my neighbor, I will soon come to believe that my rights always outweigh his rights: I will come to believe that I have a superior claim to his money, a superior claim to the affections of his wife, and perhaps even a superior claim to life if it should get down to that. If I am important enough, like the Pharisee praying near the Publican, I will begin to believe that even God is lucky to have one so good as His follower.  If a man is afflicted only with lust, or only with greed, or only with hatred, his sins will generally correspond only to that vice.  But if he is afflicted by pride, all of the Commandments are up to be broken.

    Not surprisingly, the Church shows us the alternative to self importance in today’s Epistle—one may have to look to find it, but there is always a connection between the readings prescribed for any particular Mass.  The alternative is nothing less than to give up the externals of social acclaim, and to seek the “progress of the inner man; to have Christ dwelling through faith in our hearts ...  to know Christ’s love, which surpasses all knowledge.”[3]

    The problem is largely one of putting things in proper perspective; not allowing us to be puffed up with the dropsy of hypocritical self importance.  It is not God who is lucky to have our interest—rather it is we who are lucky to have His.  We must recognize that in the eternal scheme of things we are not all that important and we do very little that can be called truly great—it is God “Who is able to accomplish all things, in a measure far beyond what we ask or conceive.” “Pray that He may grant you from His glorious riches to be strengthened with power through His Spirit to the progress of the inner man.”


[1] Matthew xxiii: 4-6

[2]   Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Luke xviii: 9-14.

[3]   Today’s Epistle, Ephesians iii: 13-21.


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