From Matthew’s Gospel:
Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 18:7 (NRSV) – June 18, 2014)
Until I undertook a little bit of Greek language study, I always thought Jesus’ pronouncements of woe were angry condemnations, predictions of doom, and certainly they can be that. On the other hand, they can be understood as something very different. The Greek word translated as “woe” is ouai which can also (and perhaps more properly) be translated as “alas.” The word is onomatopoeic, representing a deep sigh of sorrow or resignation. Perhaps Jesus is not so much condemning as mourning.
I grew up with a picture of Jesus that was internally contradictory. There was the Good Shepherd Jesus who was loving and kind, who healed children, sought out the lost, and wept over the death of friends. On the other hand, there was the angry, condemning Jesus who braided a whip out of cords, overturned tables, pronounced doom-laden “woes”.
Although his earthly post-Resurrection were certainly more the former sort of Jesus, it seemed it was the angry Jesus who really rose because that’s the one John of Patmos said was coming back: “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” (Rev 9:15)
Then I studied Greek and read, for example, Luke’s “blessings and woes” rather differently:
Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. (Lk 6:24-26)
The same ouai, the same deeply sad sigh, the same “alas” as in today’s reading. Now it seems to me that Jesus, rather than venting fury at these people, is saying, “I feel sorry for you rich . . . I fell sorry for you full . . . I feel sorry you who laugh . . . I feel sorry for you who have great reputations.” This Jesus, sadly disappointed rather than angry with those about whom he expresses woe, is not contradictory to the Jesus who heals, who cares, who listens, who feeds, and who weeps.
I still don’t know what to do with that raging horse rider with the sharp sword for a tongue, but I’m feeling a lot better about the Jesus who says, “Woe to you . . . . ”
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.