Oy Vey! Woe Is Me!
“What sorrow awaits you Pharisees! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore justice and the love of God. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things.”
In the latter portion of Luke 11, Jesus dined in the home of a Pharisee, an influential lay leader among Jews in the first century A.D. Yet they did not enjoy polite small talk over the dinner table. Rather, Jesus, his host, and his host’s friends engaged in a tense conversation, one in which Jesus was unusually harsh in denouncing the ways of his dinner companions.
He began with three criticisms of the Pharisees. In each of these, the Pharisees are warned for being overly concerned about religious details and outward appearances. The second of these three warnings reads: “What sorrow awaits you Pharisees! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore justice and the love of God. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things” (11:42). The Pharisees paid exacting attention to the footnotes of how much of their produce they should give to the Lord’s work. Yet, they completely missed the headlines, that which Scripture energetically proclaims and commends: “justice and the love of God.” They did all of the right religious things, but failed to invest their lives in the things that matter most to God.
The New Living Translation begins verse 42 with the phrase “What sorrow awaits you Pharisees!” Classic translations, like the King James Version, prefer the phrase: “Woe unto you, Pharisees!” The Greek word in Luke 11:42 is ouai, a version of the Hebrew word oy (for example, 1 Samuel 4:8), and is probably the basis for the Yiddish expression of angst: “Oy vey!”
Sometimes you’ll find passages like Luke 11:37-44 entitled something like “Woes on the Pharisees.” But, as I reflect upon this passage, I’m struck by how much I am like the Pharisees. You see, I can care more about my shiny religious image than what’s really in my heart. And I can pay attention to details of Christian living while forgetting to seek justice and love. And I can enjoy being honored by people without repenting of the corruption in my soul. So, I might prefer to entitle this passage, not “Woes on the Pharisees,” but rather “Woe is me!”
Yet I have hope, not in my ability to get things right, but in God’s ability to make me right through Christ. I’ll close today with some words of encouragement from one of the most famous Pharisees of all, St. Paul: “Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: As you read Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees, can you see yourself in any way like them? If so, are you willing to allow the Lord to transform your inner being and your behavior?
PRAYER: Lord Jesus, it’s so easy to look upon the Pharisees as “the bad guys.” Yet, when I think more carefully about your “woes” upon them, I realize that I am so much like them. Forgive me, Lord, for all the times I fret about the minor details while ignoring what really matters. Forgive me when I am so concerned about being right that I fail to be loving or just. Forgive me when I worry most of all about how others see me, ignoring the issue of how you see my heart.
Thank you, Lord Jesus, for the freedom you offer. You don’t merely point out my faults, but also you show the way to freedom, the way that passes through your cross, the way of new life through your resurrection. Amen.