A reflection on the readings for February 13, 2022 — The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today’s Gospel gives us Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, an analogue of the more famous equivalent or parallel passage in Matthew. Luke’s “take” on the concept, if you will, differs from Matthew’s both because the blessings are more truncated and because they are accompanied by curses, “woes” upon those who—in the words of the reading from Jeremiah associated with today’s Gospel—“trust in human beings and seek their strength in flesh.” Jesus’ “woes” and curses are usually seen as hard teachings—teachings directed against human sin, yes, but often also against human beings in sometimes very personal terms. “Broods of vipers”; “dens of robbers.” So too we in the developed world might feel singled out, targeted, even insulted or threatened unduly, by Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel:
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.
But, then, how comforting must these words have been to Jesus’, and Luke’s, original audience! “Casting down the mighty from their thrones,” as Mary says in the Magnificat (another passage unique to Luke’s Gospel), serves not only to punish the mighty, but to remove them from positions of usually unearned, often abused power over the weak. God in Scripture punishes—judges—both individuals and nations not solely to exact punishment or retribution for its own sake but also to remove powerful people or powerful countries from positions in which they can run roughshod over others. The corrupt, soon-to-be-conquered Kingdom of Judah in Jeremiah’s time was judged not only because it could not keep up right worship but also because in its deviations from God’s Law it had become a miserable place to live for the poor.
Why, then, are the “woes” in Luke worded in a way that seems purely retributive? Those who weep are not going to be more able to laugh because those who mourn have begun to weep, unless through a level of sadism that it is difficult to imagine God Himself encouraging. Even in the Magnificat, the rich being sent away empty is not automatically and at all times necessary in order for the hungry to be filled up with good things. Reversals and negative parallels of this kind, however, are common in ancient rhetoric, whether it be Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. Even in modern writing one sees similar parallelisms set up to establish ironies or unfavorable comparisons. (The chorus of the Taylor Swift song “You Belong with Me” is the lowest-stakes example that comes to mind for me right now; “she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers…”) It isn’t that in order for one person to be exalted another absolutely has to be abased; it’s that the abasement paints a bold, startling picture of the upheaval in human affairs that the Gospel message demands.
Jesus’ criticisms of the worship practices and “just world” thinking of His day—the idea familiar even now that the world is fundamentally fair and what we get must be what we deserve—is of perennial importance. Yet one of the resentments to which it can lead, a resentment that in my opinion is far more dangerous than resentment of the rich or the successful per se, is resentment of Jewish religious practice. This isn’t much of a problem with this particular series of woes in Luke, which can apply to people in just about any society that has any degree of inequality at all, but it is a common criticism of the “Woes of the Pharisees” that appear in both Luke and Matthew. Only the Matthean version of these “woes” is read at Sunday Mass, in Year A; the Lucan passage is relegated to weekdays in the Twenty-eighth Week of Ordinary Time. They’re thus relevant to us this weekend purely by way of comparison and contrast.
In the Woes of the Pharisees Jesus is indeed harshly critical of several elements of traditional Jewish religious practice in very specific terms. The commonplace observation that Jesus, most likely, initially set out in His ministry to spark a rejuvenation within Judaism, similar to those sparked by the previous Prophets, is important to keep in mind here. Indeed, the fundamental point that the outward forms of worship must reflect an inward disposition of compassion and generosity is one that we also see in Jesus’ near-contemporary Hillel the Elder, an important philosophical and ethical source in Rabbinic Judaism to this day.
Most contemporary Catholics are probably aware of the dangers of extending the Woes of the Pharisees to a blanket condemnation of “ritualistic” worship, less due to any particular concern about antisemitism and more due to the fact that Catholicism itself often comes in for attacks from Protestants on very similar grounds. Arriving at a correct, nuanced theology of the woes that accompany Luke’s Beatitudes is, however, still imperative, since these woes are everybody’s problem or at least every society’s problem. It’s important to understand these woes as part of a call to holiness that complements the blessings, rather than as some sort of insult or attack against which we must defend ourselves. We must be open to Jesus’ call to holiness no matter how hard it may hit us.
Image: “Jeremiah” by Ilya Repin. From Wikimedia Commons.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.