Luke 6:20Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you* on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 ‘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.
Paused this morning in the gospel at the ‘woes’. Not that I’m feeling woeful, but aware that as much as I appreciate what Jesus is teaching in the blessings, I know what is coming and I can’t really rest there, pause there, feel the blessing. Nope. The woes are just at the next verses and with them I feel stung, maybe burned. I am not poor, I am not hungry, I am not depressed. I ask myself, Can I find a way to insert myself in that first group – with those to whom Jesus blesses? In the past I have been able to rest with those who mourn and weep. Indeed I hung out there a long, long time, seeking God and knowing his presence in my sadness – knowing his love and blessing and feeling his saving grace.
But today, though grateful – so grateful – to no longer be stuck in sadness – the fact that the woes catch my attention, that I can’t rest with the ‘blessings’ group – just sort of unsettles me. So, I wanted to know more about the ‘woes’ – how and why is this word the counter to a blessing. If a blessing is an action and or word of grace, is woe an action or word of condemnation and judgment? As in, am I in or out? Part of the realm of God or and eternal salvation or not?
At its root, ‘woe’ represents a thought transformed into a feeling and expressed in a word—hoy, “woe!” (Bibliography. N. Hillyer, NIDNTT 3, pp. 1051–1054.). A variety of interpretations of the word and the sentiment seem to agree that the way Jesus uses ‘woe’ is different than how it was used by the prophets and some New Testament writers. In the latter case harsh judgment implied, but in Jesus’ case, the word is more full of sentiment and less harsh around the edges.
When Jesus says ‘Woe unto you’, he is not so much pronouncing a final judgment as deploring the miserable condition in God’s sight of those he is addressing…in the ministry of Jesus Christ, ‘woe’ is an exclamation of sadness over those who fail to recognise the true misery of their condition. (Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words)
So many people then and now just flat out don’t know they need God and don’t know that all they believe they need has come from God. That’s what I hear Jesus saying in his use of ‘woe’. It makes him sad for them. Breaks his heart.
I wonder if there weren’t a few of these folks in the crowd – curious perhaps of this man, Jesus. They show up and stand alongside the others deemed ‘blessed.’ Does this Jesus have anything to say to me? they wonder.
I don’t think Jesus countered his ‘blessings’ with the ‘woes’ for the sake of the blessed – to make them feel better about themselves. He wasn’t being divisive, wasn’t pointing fingers and judging one group for the sake of making the poor, hungry and depressed feel righteous.
No. I think Jesus knew that in the crowd were folks who from the outside looked to have it all but who, on the inside, had questions about the meaning of ‘having it all.’
So, Jesus does something very simple to provide them reflection. To go deeper with their own question. With the ‘woes’ he simply holds up a mirror. Now, they see what they have and what they have taken for granted. Tables are filled, cars in the driveway, homes are remodeled, paychecks regularly deposited, relationships loving, health in check.
Imagining Jesus holding up the mirror to these folks – am I part of this crowd? – two things occur. First, they see only themselves and their ‘things’ and second, they don’t see Jesus. They can’t see Jesus.
But they could hear. Just as we today, can hear in Jesus’ teaching what the Spirit is saying – asking. Are you full of yourself, your things, your businesses, your ambitions? Do you hear/see this mirror? And if so, like the folks in the crowd, perhaps you are being prompted to think more deeply and now avert your eyes from the mirror – from your condition, from yourself – to see him. We have to look beyond our state, our things, ourselves to see Jesus. To know him and to follow him.
Woe to those of us who hear but don’t see and follow.