Condemnation or Lamentation?

This coming Sunday is the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time. In yesterday’s post we encountered the possibility that some towns would not receive the good news of the Kingdom of God at hand. You may have noticed that there is a “gap” in the Sunday gospel. Quite noticeably, the Sunday gospel passes over vv.13-16, sayings that are difficult in themselves, and certainly present larger homiletic challenges for a Sunday morning: 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.”

Because the proclamation of the gospel is the word of God, it is not to be treated as a merely human message — “take it or leave it.” In rejecting the preachers they were not simply rejecting a couple of poor itinerants, but the very kingdom of God, and that has serious consequences for closing ears and hearts to the news of God’s reign – the people have drawn down judgment on themselves

Jesus makes drastic comparisons for the obstinate cities of Galilee where he centered much of his ministry. Chorazin and Bethsaida will be no better off than Sodom. And proud Capernaum, Jesus’ “headquarters” in Galilee, has learned nothing from the Jewish heritage that was preparing for the coming of the Messiah. Tyre and Sidon, Gentile cities, would have been able to read the signs that Capernaum overlooked. The conclusion of the instruction is a reminder of the deeper dimension of the mission: the disciples are bringing Jesus and the Father to their listeners.

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. [] 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 calls down the wrath of God on sinners. But that is not consistent with Jesus 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!

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