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Words of Woe and Love
Wednesday of the Twenty-Eighth Week in Ordinary Time
The Lord said: “Woe to you Pharisees! You pay tithes of mint and of rue and of every garden herb, but you pay no attention to judgment and to love for God. These you should have done, without overlooking the others. Woe to you Pharisees! You love the seat of honor in synagogues and greetings in marketplaces. Woe to you! You are like unseen graves over which people unknowingly walk.” Then one of the scholars of the law said to him in reply, “Teacher, by saying this you are insulting us too.” And he said, “Woe also to you scholars of the law! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them.”
Opening Prayer: As I call to mind your presence, Lord, I make my own the words of today’s psalm: Only in God is my soul at rest… He is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I shall not be disturbed at all (Psalms 62:2-3). I want to have a faith as strong as that, to find always in you the strength I need to live joyfully, courageously, uprightly. I come to you in prayer today seeking your grace. I lift my heart and mind to you; be everything for me, Lord. Show me your ways.
- Four Woes: In Luke 6, we find four beatitudes and six woes (four of them in today’s passage). Most biblical scholars see a connection here, a certain contrary parallel. Beyond the specific nuances of each woe, the parallel reiterates one of the most overlooked characteristics of Jesus’s doctrine: that we are responsible for our own destiny. Many factors condition the choices we make throughout life—the geographical and sociopolitical environment where we are born and raised, the emotional and spiritual state of our parents, the educational opportunities available to us, and many others. God is fully aware of all these things. And yet, Jesus continually invites us to take responsibility for our lives by choosing freely how we will relate to ourselves, to others, and to God. His Gospel continues to shine like a beacon, illuminating a path of living in which we see ourselves as called into friendship with God and called to build up God’s Kingdom–not our own personal kingdoms–in the world around us. Somehow, God’s invitation reaches each person—where the Church is strong, it resounds clearly and attractively; where the Church is weak or has not yet reached, it may barely resound at all. But God loves us too much not to give each of us multiple opportunities to choose and follow along the path of life, or not. This is why he can exclaim: blessed are you… or woe to you… In the end, we either accept his grace or we don’t, and we have no one to blame but ourselves in either case.
- The Patience of Jesus: This series of deprecations sounds harsh to our modern ears. We picture Jesus accusing the Pharisees, and it’s hard to picture him smiling as he does so. But let us not forget that this passage comes halfway through St. Luke’s Gospel. Jesus had had many interactions with the Pharisees—conversations, meals, meetings in the synagogue. The Pharisees had heard his parables. They had witnessed his miracles and exorcisms. The Lord smiled and reached out to them patiently and gently. But most of them still refused to hear him, refused to welcome his message and his mercy. Jesus loved them too much to give up on them. And so he changed his tone. He tried to shake them up and wake them up. He didn’t lose his temper. He didn’t wish for their condemnation. He was reaching out to them still, urgently and eloquently, trying to break through their self-satisfied hypocrisy so that his redeeming mercy could renew their hearts and minds. Jesus still follows the same patient and persistent method with us. He will not give up on us, and he will keep trying new ways to convince us to repent and believe in the Gospel every day, as we truly need to. The Catechism (27, 30) puts it beautifully: God never ceases to draw man to himself… Although man can forget God or reject him, he never ceases to call every man to seek him, so as to find life and happiness…
- Face to Face: Clearly, Jesus was upset with the Pharisees—the most educated and influential members of the Jewish people, and yet the most resistant to his message of salvation. But Jesus didn’t take his dissatisfaction underground. He didn’t excoriate the Pharisees behind their backs. He spoke the truth to them directly, lovingly, and consistently. Resorting to harsh and dramatic language, conflictual language, surely wasn’t comfortable for the Lord. He would have preferred to be able to reason with them calmly. But he tried that and it didn’t work. Here is a lesson for us. When we find ourselves criticizing other people, we should guard against doing so in a destructive way. For a Christian, criticism must always be constructive, ordered towards repentance and growth. This means we can never say something about someone when they are not present that we wouldn’t say about them if they were present. Backbiting, gossiping, and spreading accusatory stories behind people’s backs may give us an intoxicating sense of superiority and control, but it is never constructive. It never builds up trust and brotherhood, whether in family, in the Church, at work, or in society at large. Every human being, even those like the Pharisees, is created in God’s image and likeness and was redeemed by Christ’s precious blood. And so we can never glorify God and promote his Kingdom by disdaining the intrinsic honor and dignity of our fellow human beings, however far they may have fallen from grace.
Conversing with Christ: I am sorry, Lord, for the many times I have behaved like the Pharisees—judging my neighbors instead of respecting them, pontificating at them instead of understanding and accompanying them, wasting energy in search of vain praise for myself instead of investing all my gifts and talents so as to build up your Kingdom. Have mercy on me, Lord, and grant me the grace I need to humble myself and seek only what is truly good for myself and everyone around me.
Resolution: Lord, today by your grace I will make sure that every word I speak in conversation is truthful and constructive, no matter what. And if I unwittingly fall back into useless or destructive criticism, I will immediately ask God for forgiveness and try to make amends.
For Further Reflection: Sharpening Your Tongue: A Regnum Christi Essay on Charity in Our Words.
Written by Fr. John Bartunek, LC.