This coming Sunday, the 14th in Year C of Ordinary Time, the gospel is Luke 10:1-12, 17-20. It is the commissioning of the 72 disciples and some preliminary response to their return. But here is what is skipped:
13 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 But it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. 15 And as for you, Capernaum, ‘Will you be exalted to heaven? You will go down to the netherworld.’” 16 Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”
The sayings are difficult in themselves, and certainly present larger homiletic challenges for a Sunday morning. But I think there is a more basic problem. In our English-language hearing of the “woe to you” expressions, we are conditioned to understand the phrase as a condemnation, or at least as “unless you change your ways, the curses promised by the condemnations will come upon you.” Especially in the context of these verses, condemnation is held up as a very real possibility when all things come to judgment. The question I would pose is this: what is the tone of the expression’s use. Is it condemnatory? Or is there another viable linguistic alternative.
The expression “woe to you” is written in the Greek as “ouai soi.” The word soi is straight forward and means “to you.” The word “ouai” is a bit more interesting. Most scholars hold that the Greek is really a Semitism used as an interjection expressing pain, lament, and especially a threat in 41 NT passages. [EDNT, 540]. The Semitism is not that unfamiliar to us. We have all heard the expression “oy vey” – the ethnically Jewish way to react when you find out how much your son’s root canal will cost, or when you find out that there is a two-hour wait time for a table at the restaurant where you just arrived. [Chabad.org] Oy and vey are two very old Jewish interjections which both mean “woe.” Oy is found many times in the Bible (see Numbers 21:29, 1 Samuel 4:7 and Isaiah 3:11 for a few examples). Vey is newer than oy; it is oy’s Aramaic equivalent. But at their root meaning, they are also expressions of pain and lament.
Why could this be important? I think it is because of the manner/tone we assign to Jesus as he says these words. I think we are prone and conditioned to assign Jesus the manner/tone of a street corner preacher call down the wrath of God on sinners. But that is not consistent with Jesus’ behavior or the deeper meaning of the text. What is more consistent with Jesus’ manner and mission, is that he is lamenting the current state of things. Bethsaida and Chorazin were witnesses to the mercy and mission of Jesus, and yet remain unrepentant. Should they remain this way, it will not go well for them. And that is lamentable. Oy vey!