Sermon from July 9th
“Woe to you…” Jesus said to the cities where he had been active, where he had performed his “deeds of power.” “Woe to you.” The lectionary leaves this portion of Matthew’s gospel out of the reading. It is an uncomfortable passage. But what a strange saying that is. It’s familiar because it’s Biblical. But what did Jesus mean when he said, “Woe to you”? Since my Greek is beyond rusty, I looked at some other translations. “Alas for you” it says in the Jerusalem Bible. The most interesting –not easily read or heard in public worship, was a modern translation from The Complete Gospels.
“Then he began to insult the towns where he had performed most of his miracles, because they had not changed their ways: ‘Damn you, Chorazin! Damn you, Bethsaida! If the miracles done in you had been done in Tyre and Sideon, they would have sat in sackcloth and ashes and chained their ways long ago.’”
The Jerusalem Bible translation seems to soften Jesus’ tone. The newer one makes it harsher –and, perhaps, more colloquial, the way someone might speak today. But, what did Jesus mean? Is this a glimpse of the fire and brimstone God that we fear? We speak of God’s love, but, too often we proclaim or act as God’s anointed judges who condemn. This sounds like a “God’s gonna getchya” message. “But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.” Yet, a few verses later, Jesus declared, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
“My burden is light.” “On the day of judgment.” Those two phrases are hard to hear in proximity. How can the threat of a day of judgment be reconciled with the promise of a light burden? It would be easy to hear this as an invitation to draw lines – to look for ways of making sure that we’re on the inside, that we’re the righteous who have received the good promise and not the unrighteous who will be deservingly judged. It gives rise to all those approaches to Christianity that relish having an “insider” view or “secret knowledge” that makes us (or some) feel particularly privileged and blessed – while others remain outside. It can also lead to an approach to faith that is based ultimately on fear.
Years ago, a parishioner came to me. He was being pushed by a friend or relative to go to a different church—one with a good Biblical foundation. He went, but wasn’t very comfortable. So he came to talk with me. I asked him if he could identify the underlying message. They spoke of God’s love – but they also spoke of God’s judgment, with joy and relish. The underlying message – not fully spoken, but there nonetheless--was that God was to be feared. So, one had better get on God’s right side!
“Woe to you.,,” “Alas for you…” “Damn you!” Do we not hear, “Get right with God! Or else!”?
In one of my college physics classes we got tests back one day. I had gotten a good mark. Another student looked over and saw my grade. He said to me, “Wow! God was good to you!” That observation made me furious. “I worked hard for this! God had nothing to do with it!” I said.
That statement wasn’t completely fair to God. I had some innate ability to understand physics and I was certainly helped by having a physicist for a father. But this student’s observation that God had been good to me was so simplistic that it seemed to leave me out. It seemed to indicate that it wouldn’t have mattered what I did. God had made the decision to give me a good grade. God might, just as well, have made the decision to give me a bad grade. I needn’t have studied! It was all in God’s hands.
Well, my understanding is more along the lines of God had given me some abilities, but it was my responsibility to use those abilities, to study and work hard and then see what I had accomplished. If I hadn’t studied or worked hard on that exam and had gotten a bad grade, it wouldn’t have been God’s judgment on me. It would have been judgment that I brought on myself.
That’s sort of a long way around to wrestle with what’s happening in this passage. But, I suspect what we hear as God’s judgment is more Jesus pointing consequences – consequences that would be experienced as judgment. The towns had seen the power of God in and through Jesus – but they had rejected the signs. They did not repent (that is turn from) the ways that separated them from God’s ways. They were going to reap the consequences of continuing to live apart from what God was doing.
Maybe the judgment that we often attribute to God is that we live with the consequences of our own actions – of our own willingness to turn away from God. Anna Carter Florence wrote: “No sooner does Jesus finish lambasting those high-and-mighty, good-for-nothing towns than he abruptly turns around and offers one of the gentlest words in scripture….’Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’ Does this strike anyone else as curious? Righteous indignation followed by warm invitation. Zealous anger paired with tender comfort. Judgment—and grace.”
We tend to hear Jesus’ words as the promise of future retribution. But, perhaps, those who rejected him are already living with the consequences that rejection. What Jesus offers them is a different future – one that embraces God’s ways, one that moves from the brokenness they know to fullness of life that is possible when it is lived within the loving grace and mercy of God. We could rehear Jesus’ words as a lament – a soft lament in the Jerusalem Bible, “Alas, alas.” Or an angry lament in that modern translation. “Damn it! Why don’t you accept what I’m offering you? I want you to know the fullness of God’s grace! Come to me.”
It’s easy and tempting to look for a someday scenario when God will thunder into the midst of human society and divide the good from the bad – and judge all those who contribute to the messiness that is so much a part of human existence. But Jesus’ call wasn’t a someday invitation. He offered it to those who were living in the midst of the mess. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden.”
We might ask, instead, what it is in our world that burdens us – as individuals, but maybe even more so, as the entire human community. We might ask what labors lead us not to life but to brokenness. What goals and ideals separate us from the good ways of God? What in human life today would cause Jesus to cry over us and say, “Alas, alas!”?
The passage calls us to look honestly at our own society. Where are we aligned with the values of God’s realm? Where have we turned away? We need to wrestle with our attitudes toward the poor, the invisible, the marginalized. We need to look at the systems and the laws that guide our communal life – and ask how they embody God’s call to justice and mercy, to compassion and love. We are living with the consequences of our own sin. We see it in the violence that erupts in households, neighborhoods, and communities. We see it in the desperation of many. We see it in the growing intolerance – for strangers, for foreigners, for those who look different, have different lifestyles, worship differently. We are being judged – living the consequences of our own brokenness. And it is to that brokenness that Jesus speaks when he issues the invitation to “Come.”
The yoke that he offered was not a burdensome yoke – it was the yoke of living within God’s ways – of having the human temptation to rebel contained by God’s loving, guiding presence. Jesus offered to teach them the ways of God, the ways that would lead toward the world God intended.
The word “yoke” sounds intimidating. It challenges that desire we have to be “free,” free to make our own decisions and our own choices. But this yoke is a choice given to us. We can choose the ways of God that lead toward the healing of the woes that we human beings know. Like the cross, it is our own decision to take this yoke that Jesus offers. When, as, we do, we find that the yoke is the grace needed to move from the world’s broken ways. That promise is for those who hear his invitation. And then, when we have taken the yoke, we continue his work of inviting others to take up the yoke and of easing the consequences of greed and selfishness, of fear and hatred, of all those things that separate us from one another and contribute to the violence and brokenness of the world.