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

Gifts in the Wilderness

By Ben Lee

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 16:2-15

Matthew 20:1-16

During my family’s annual week-long family reunion, my parents would sometimes find unique things for us to do as a family. One year, when I was around twelve years old, he decided to rent a boat and take us out to a nearby island. Many of my cousins and I spent the day snorkeling and collecting shells, rocks, and even a few fossils. The next year, he arranged for us all to go on a deep-sea fishing trip for the day. After these two years, I began to expect something even better. I even had the gall to say “What are you going to do for us this year? It needs to be something that is more exciting than deep-sea fishing.” That was the year that my dad decided to do nothing. I was furious. It was going to be the worst year ever. Forget the fact that even being able to take a week-long vacation was a tremendous privilege.

The more I calculated what was coming to me, the more I distorted the dynamics of the gift that was being offered. And so my dad withheld that particular gift, lest I confuse the reason why he was offering it in the first place.  Read more

The Present and Hidden Kingdom

By Johnny Tuttle

Eighth Sunday After Pentecost

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

I am a sucker for the universality – the “catholicity”[1] –  of this string of parables. They seem concerned, not simply with identifying the Kingdom of God, but the universal reach of its presence.

Certainly, the mustard seed is a speck in the field. Yet, as the parable announces, it grows into “the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” I suppose you could debate whether the mustard seed is indeed the smallest seed, or whether it is the greatest of shrubs when it is grown; I’ll pass on that debate. It seems the point, rather, is that the entirety of this “sprawling” plant – one large enough to house the birds of the air in its branches – is contained by the seemingly insignificant seed. Read more