I am eternally fascinated with the origins of words. Recently, I came across the word “woe” repeatedly when Jesus proclaims his eight woes upon the Pharisees. Online Etymology Dictionary gives the origin of the word “woe” as “late 12c., from the interjection, Old English wa!, a common exclamation of lament in many languages (compare Latin væ, Greek oa, German weh, Lettish wai, Old Irish fe, Welsh gwae, Armenian vay).” Today, we don’t use the word “woe,” but perhaps the best approximation we have might be “woah!” A “woe” is something that stops us in our tracks and makes us drop our jaws—in a negative way. Recently when reading Matthew 23 it struck me that just as many people have problems with the church, Jesus gave eight complaints against the religious establishment of his own day. Yes, if you have problems with the church, you’re in good company. Let me see if I can sum up Jesus’ complaints, and then let me re-frame these “woes” into “what-ifs.”
In verse 13[i], Jesus says, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.” What the Lord is saying is, What if the church were less exclusive and judgmental, and more inclusively demonstrated God’s grace? If Jesus could say “Neither do I condemn you,”[ii] then why can’t we? We could turn the church into a welcoming place rather than one that makes people feel like they will be rejected by the holier than thou.
In verse 14, Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows' houses and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive the greater condemnation.” What if the church were less concerned with receiving endowments than sharing its wealth with the poor? I’ve known many churches with overflowing accounts that did nobody any good because they refused to use the gifts God gave them to help those in need. Instead, of being righteous, they were content to look righteous by their show of piety.
In verse 15, Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” It’s important to share our faith and lead people to a relationship with God through Christ. But What if church members were more concerned with helping people to be like Jesus than forcing them to be like us? Jesus knew that the Pharisees’ goal of making converts was to reproduce little Pharisees. It should be our goal to produce more Christ-followers, not to produce people who look and act like we do.
In verses 16-22, Jesus pronounces a woe upon nitpicky people who are bound up in their own customs and rules that they want to impose on other people. “If you’re going to make an oath, you have to say the words my way,” they would say. What Jesus was really saying is, “What if the church were less interested in words and formulas, and more interested in the heart?” Last night I watched a comedian who made fun of his own awkwardness when attending a church where he didn’t know the proper response to the liturgy. While he made a funny routine of it, what’s not funny is the way we make people feel when we make them feel like outsiders or tell them that they’re doing it wrong.
In verses 23-24, Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” The Old Testament Law required tithing real produce, but the Pharisees were so over-scrupulous that they tithed even their kitchen spices. Similarly, many in the church are so stuck on legalism that they neglect the weightier matters of mercy and faithfulness. So, what if the church was more interested in the spirit of the Law than the letter?
In verses 25-26, Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” Jesus might have asked, “What if the church cared more about getting its heart right than appearing righteous?” What if it didn’t even care about how it appeared on the outside, as long as the inside was clean? God might do a lot with a church like that.
Jesus’ next woe is much like the last. But in verses 27-28, He says it even more offensively: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” I’ve been to cemeteries with whitewashed tombs just like Jesus talked about—beautiful on the outside but rotten on the inside. What if the church were more interested in being alive than in looking alive? What if it cared more about beautiful souls than it did about beautiful buildings?
In verses 29-30, Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’” Jesus is telling the legalists of his day that they wouldn’t have been any less legalistic had they lived in another time. We tend to glorify another time, to remember some golden era or to look forward to some glorious future when things can be better. What if the church cared more about the here and now than either the good old days or the sweet by and by?
Jesus didn’t blast the Pharisees in order to condemn them, but to challenge them to be something better. He wanted them to change the woes to “what if’s.” If the church can take a little helpful criticism, if we can ask some hard “what if’s” then maybe we can go from “Woe” to “Wow!” Instead of “Woe is me—our church is declining,” or “Woah—look at where our society’s headed!” we can make some changes and say “Wow!” We can step into the bright and glorious future that God intends for God’s people.