Woe or Whoa?

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
November 15, 2020
Matthew 23:13-38

This is a video of a “practice run” of the sermon, recorded on Friday, November 13.
Note: The video is missing the woe/whoa joke that I added later!

At the beginning of worship:

            I warned you last week; we’re spending two weeks in the 23rd Chapter of Matthew. It’s a difficult chapter. Jesus deliverers a pulpit-pounding sermon. In the middle of this sermon are seven woes. For each, Jesus lifts up particular actions of the seemingly religious folks. He then condemns their hypocrisy.

The passage ends with a mournful lament for Jerusalem. This city stoned the prophets and will, in a few days, crucify the Messiah. Jesus’ lament demonstrates his great love for these misguided people. He longs to hug and care for them, but they won’t listen.

In this chapter, we see Jesus’ anger at prideful behavior and his heartbreak over the consequences of such actions. As the old cliché goes, God hates the sin and loves the sinner. 

After the Scripture Reading:

There are a lot of woes in this passage and Jesus isn’t riding a horse.[1] What’s he trying to say?

Let’s look at a few of his examples. He speaks of those who are seemingly religious going beyond what is required by the law.

Let me say this. Setting the bar higher or trying to do more than the letter of the law demands in and of itself isn’t bad. It can be commendable. Especially if we move from a strictly legalistic understanding of the law to one that captures the intent of the law.

Jesus himself does this in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s not enough just to refrain from murder. If you try to destroy a person’s reputation by calling them a fool, you’re guilty. The same is true with adultery. You don’t have to actually do the deed. Lustful thoughts make you guilty.[2]

Understand this, Jesus isn’t upset with folks going beyond what is required by the law. One example he refers to is offering a 10th of one’s garden herbs. The tithe was only expected on grain crops, oil, and wine.

What upsets Jesus is that these people make a deal out of these little things while ignoring what’s important.[3] They take pride in their good deeds, thinking it makes them better.

Jesus takes the double-love commandment, which we looked at a few weeks ago (to love God and to love your neighbor[4]) and applies it here. “Woe to you who tithe mint and dill and cumin and neglect the weightier matters of the law—justice and mercy and faith.”

Justice and mercy link to our call to love our neighbor. Faith reminds us that we’re to love the Lord.[5] Tithing, the giving a tenth of our income, although important, shouldn’t be the focus of our faith. If we elevate its importance, we risk forgetting that tithing is to be done with an attitude of thanksgiving for what God has done. We shouldn’t tithe to earn God’s favor. Nor should we make a big deal about it, like those who gave extra tithes (as if we’re in a game of spiritual one-upmanship). Jesus condemns attempts to bribe God or to put our piety on display.

A personal example:

Let me give you an example of this from my early teen years. My mother had said she wanted a particular kind of brush. I was with my dad in J. C. Fields one day and saw it. It wasn’t very expensive, a dollar or two (remember, this was nearly 50 years ago). Having mowed some neighbor’s lawns, I had money and I brought it for her. She was pleased. A day or two later as she was getting on me for something I’d done, I reminded her of my gift. She made it very clear that if the gift was a way to bribe her, I could take it back.

Intentions are important. We’re not to do good to show off for others, or to bribe God. We’re to live in gratitude for what God has done for us.

More Woes:

In the next woe, Jesus draws upon the analogy of a cup and the absurd concept that if the outside was clean, so must the inside be clean. Such people have their priorities reversed, as it’s more important to have the inside clean than the outside.

Now, before we go any further, I must confess that I may have descended from the Pharisees. Often, I overload the dishwasher and when I unload it, I’m guilty of grabbing a handful of cups or bowls and not looking inside. They get stacked in the cabinet and, on occasion, what looked to be clean on the outside isn’t so on the inside. When someone else gets one of those cups or bowls… Well, let’s just I hear about it.

Of course, that’s not exactly what Jesus is talking about here. Instead, this is similar to his expansion of the law in the Sermon on the Mount. There, Jesus equates lust and ill-placed passion with adultery. Here, Jesus refers to an uncontrolled appetite, a desire to have our cups “runneth over.”[6]

Jesus attacks the lack of self-control, along with our lusting and unhealthy desires for things. Things are not bad; in moderation most things can be good. But in excess, even good things can be bad for us.

Jesus further warns that while we might look good on the outside, our drive to over-indulge will create filth on the inside.

Jesus expands on this theme of appearing clean on the outside but being dirty on the inside with his next woe. Here, where Jesus speaks of whitewashed tombs, he’s probably drawing from a practice of covering graves and tombs with white chalk once a year, in a belief it would keep the priests from becoming unclean by accidental contact. Jesus equates these glistening white tombs to hypocrites who look nice on the outside, but inside are dead and rotting. These are harsh words for Jesus accuses those seen as “the great defenders of the law as being the main rebels against it.”[7]

Jesus’ final woe is directed at those who glorify their heritage and traditions and mistakenly believe that tradition is the same as truth. Those who are teachers of Scripture, who also kept the graves of the prophets and the righteous in top shape, believe that because they’re a part of this tradition, they too are righteous.

They believed that if they had been living in the past, they’d been the brave ones who would have stood up for what is right. They’d keep Jeremiah from being dropped in a well or stop the stoning of other prophets.

“Be careful,” Jesus warns, “what makes you think you’re so good?”

Do we think we’re better than the Pharisees?

You know, today, almost everyone in America honors Martin Luther King, but that wasn’t the case when he was alive. The establishment, our government, even the FBI, tried to find every reason they could to attack him. Admittedly, he wasn’t a perfect man (no one is), but he did a lot of good for his people.

Consider the Jews in Nazi Germany. We might think we would have stood up to such an atrocity, but would we?

How about in our own country? Would we stand up against injustices? Against slavery? Against the atrocities at Sand Creek or Wounded Knee? Against the lynching of African Americans?

To think we’d act differently than those in the past is often to give ourselves too much credit. We should instead realize we’re a part of a fallen world. We often do what is easiest and expedient and not what is right and just.

Jesus brings his sermon to a close, following his last woe, with an indictment of Israel. The religious leaders say they’d treat the prophets of old better, and they’re going to get a chance to do just that. In a few days, more righteous blood will be spilled.[8]

Jesus’ love and grief

After these harsh words, Jesus tenderly looks over the holy city and grieves. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem. How I long to gather your children together like a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wing, but you didn’t want me.” Jesus wants things to turn out differently and his heart is heavy as his ministry wraps up.

Good News:

I remember being told in seminary to always have good news somewhere in your sermon. It’s a challenge on a text like this. But, believe it or not, there’s good news here.

First of all, there is a bright side to the woes. If we listen and clean up our act, we’ll not have to keep up a facade. We can be freed to live.

Sharon Fawcett, in a book titled Hope for Wholeness: The Spiritual Path to Freedom from Depression, writes about this struggle. She tells about keeping up appearances (which is what hypocrisy is all about). “I considered it my responsibility to look like a winner, maintain the image, and try to make my life appear problem-free.” She wanted to be “a walking billboard advertising a perfect, painless life” that came from her relationship with Christ.”[9]

For Fawcett, judgment came through a bout of depression which kept her from keeping up this façade. After lots of treatment, having worked through it, she found freedom from such burdens. God is good and can work through the bad to bring about good for us.

A second source of good news here is the love we experience from Jesus. Our Savior loves us and wants us to love him and one another. He wants us to be ourselves, not to pretend to be something that we are not. He doesn’t want to burden us or make our lives harder. He wants us to be free to accept his grace and forgiveness.

Because he loves us, as well as those around us, there are times he needs to correct and redirect our focus. Jesus doesn’t want his followers to be a veneer, to be a façade. He wants to cleanse and liberate us so we can live free from the bondage of sin. That’s good news!

This week look back over these seven woes and re-examine your life considering what Jesus says. Is he speaking to us? Amen  

[1] A silly joke using the homophone woe verses whoa.

[2] Matthew 5:21-28

[3] For agricultural tithes see Leviticus 27:30 and Deuteronomy 14:22-23. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Mathew 13-28 (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2004), 447.

[4] Matthew 22:36-40

[5] Bruner, 449.

[6] Bruner, 451, examines the Greek word akrasia, which literally means lack of self-control.

[7] Bruner, 452.

[8] This sermon was in Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem, just before his crucifixion.

[9] Sharon Fawcett, Hope for Wholeness: The Spiritual Path to Freedom from Depression (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2008), 45.

12 Replies to “Woe or Whoa?”

    1. While we change over time, it’s not always for the good. I used to appreciate Hegelian thought, but the older I get the more I think we can change for the worse just as easily as we move toward enlightenment.

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