You May Need To Woe

By Miriam Perkins

Twenty-second Sunday After Pentecost

Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

Matthew 23:1-12

In Matthew’s 23rd chapter, Jesus warns his disciples and the crowds about duplicitous and arrogant teachers. Among the religious leaders of his time and ours, arrogance obscured wisdom, and proud lifestyles hid hypocrisy. Jesus instructed his disciples to “follow what they teach, but do not do as they do.” And with words chilling to pastors and educators, Jesus admonished them to call no one father, rabbi, or teacher – for we have one Father in heaven, and one teacher, the Messiah.

Sunday’s lectionary reading ends there, omitting the more biting “woes” Jesus speaks against the Pharisees. However, you may want to consider adding them back in.

About four years ago, I was preparing for a Wednesday class as the 2016 presidential election results came in. The next day, I wondered how to approach the course content considering the election outcome. While student responses across the country were varied, at my own seminary students were in a state of shock and distress unlike anything I had experienced as an educator since September 11. When I opened class with, “I know it has been a tough day,” one student responded emphatically, “Please, don’t understate it.”

I set aside material I planned to cover. Instead, we worked on collaboratively writing stanzas of a pastoral prayer for the country and its citizens. We started with  some blessings in the spirit of Matthew’s Beatitudes: blessed are those who stay hopeful even in a moment of disappointment; blessed are all who pray for our leaders no matter who wins an election; blessed are those who vote even when it seems their vote won’t be counted or count.

Then we wondered what it might look like to include some “woes” to express our worries and laments about the election. These proved harder. What does it mean to speak a “woe”?

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matt 23:15).

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt 23:23).

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous” (Matt 23:29).

As a legal historian, Cathleen Kaveny describes words like these as “moral indictment.” Even though harsh, moral indictments are useful when they avoid slandering specific people and instead name broad violations of core values (Prophecy Without Contempt, 2018). Woes should aim to convict our hearts and remind us, as Jesus does, of what is most important: integrity, justice, mercy, faith.

A “woe” can speak a powerful word of support for the lowly and disenfranchised. It can seek God’s protections over the just and merciful. It can remind us that Death is lurking in unsuspected places. It can point us and others toward the world we long for despite our political fractures and frustrations. Woes, like laments, are deep cries of hope – we want things to be otherwise.

Here are some of the “woes” students wrote and spoke four years ago:

Woe to those who lack compassion, for they do not feel the weight of mercy! Woe to those who are dismissive, who do not listen and remain deaf to the cries of the marginalized! Woe to those who idolize patriotism and nationalism! Woe to those who speak ill of people of color, of women, of homosexual people! Woe to the rich, white, and comfortable who are complicit with racism and bigotry. Your earthly comforts are fleeting! Woe to you who are dominated by fear. Christ compels us to act boldly in the force of senseless evil!

During this election week, you may need to speak a blessing. You may also need to speak a woe. Lament. Call out hypocrisy. As you do, nurture a spirit of humility. Remember both the indicting woes of Jesus and his humble life: “for the greatest among you will be your servant; all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt 23:11-12).

Image Credit: Machiel van Zanten

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