When I was a year or two short of being a full-fledged teenager, I was invited to attend my first funeral. It was not a Catholic funeral – and as I came to know – nothing like a Catholic funeral. It was a fundamentalist, born-again, raucous affair for a person who by all measures was a backsliding, church-skipping, no-good, no-count, reprobate of a man. The preacher made no bones about where this particular dearly-departed would spend eternity. He held up the miserable failing and sinful ways of this man as a warning of what would happen when Satan got his claws into you and dragged you down into the pit.
I think it was the first time I heard “Woe to you.” Woe to you who would fall into Satan’s grip. Woe to you who would not repent and cry for salvation. Woe to you that would give a bad example to kin and neighbors. Woe to you who would lead others down the path to perdition. Woe. Woe. Woe to you!
The preacher had my attention.
And so we are conditioned in the lexicon of our language to understand the phrase “Woe to you” as one of condemnation, or at least as a warning of the coming condemnation. Especially in the context of these gospel verses, condemnation is held up as a very real possibility when all things come to judgment. That is how we are conditioned.
The expression “woe to you” is written in the Greek as “ouai soi.” The word soi is straightforward and means “to you.” The word “ouai” is a bit more interesting. Most scholars hold that the Greek is really a Semitism used 41 times in the New Testament as an interjection expressing pain, lament, and especially in the light of coming troubles. That particular semitism is not 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 the 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!
What about us? We are given the testament and covenant of Jesus Christ, the Scriptures, the Sacraments, the great cloud of witnesses to the Faith, the continuity of Holy Mother Church – woe to us if we do not live uprightly, repent, and share the Good News.
“They had so much and they did nothing…Oy vey!”