Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Matthew 23:13-36) transports me to a blistering blast of sacred swearing strong enough to peel paint off the walls, as Christ confronts the cussed Pharisees and lowers a seven-fold sonic boom on their hypocrisy. I like to compare this passage with Matthew 5, where Jesus gave the nine-fold blessing we call the Beatitudes. In contrast, Matthew 23 has Jesus firing off a seven-fold curse in what I call the “Woe-attitudes.” We don’t quite get the full impact of the “woe” curse in English. The Greek word, ouai, mimics the screeching sound of an eagle and communicates shame and reproach. The word may sound mild by today’s standards, but back in the day it was more potent than the f bomb; it was a word designed to get people’s attention (I mean, have you ever had an eagle screech in your ear?). Imagine Jesus there in the midst of a crowd of preacher and deacon types, letting out seven blood-curdling ouais followed by your more pedestrian go to hell curse. We get some of Jesus’ more memorable expressions in these screams – this is where he rails against blind guides, snakes who strain at a gnat and swallow a camel, and religious leaders who are whitewashed on the outside but full of filthy corpses on the inside.
If we’re not careful, we’ll read passages like this and automatically put ourselves in Jesus’ sandals, thinking about all those snakes and hypocrites out there who deserve such a tongue-lashing. We like to put ourselves in the good guy position when reading stories like this. But it seems to me that those of us who are part and parcel of institutional religion, who spend a lot of time tending to the steeple, aka church, should listen to the screeching woes and see if we might be guilty of some of the practices and attitudes of the Pharisees. Do we ever strain at gnats and swallow camels? Tony Campolo, a great evangelist from Philadelphia, is known for peppering his sermons with some salty one-liners to make this very point. In one of his more famous and oft-repeated diatribes, he tells a congregation of college students: I just have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. Third, right now you’re more upset with the fact that I said “shit” than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.
Ouch. How true is that? May the screeching and scorching sounds of Jesus’ woes prompt us to leave the gnats alone and tend to the many camels that have squeezed their way into the tent of our world, the evils of apathy, poverty, hunger, violence, greed, hatred, addiction. These often hide under the whitewashed steeples of our land and find their way into our hearts of faith. As Jesus might say, to hell with them and all other demons of destruction disguising themselves as part of the life of Christ. And before we cover our tender ears, let’s remember that a well placed spurt of cussing sometimes has more of an effect than the most fervent straight-laced altar call. I’ve heard that hundreds if not thousands of young people over the years went into the mission field among the poorest of the poor to combat hunger and give the desperate some good news because Tony Campolo used language strong enough to peel the whitewash off the walls of their hearts.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.