Woe to you – Br. David Vryhof

Br. David VryhofMatthew 11:20-24

“Woe to you, Chorazin!  Woe to you, Bethsaida!
For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon,
they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

I doubt there are many preachers who would clamor to preach on the gospel text we have just heard.  We preachers tend to avoid the difficult sayings of Jesus and look for more comfortable and pleasing words.  This straight-talking, hard-hitting, no-holds-barred Jesus disturbs us.  And yet this may be one of the blessings of having texts chosen for us by a daily lectionary, which compels us forego, at least occasionally, the more agreeable stories and sayings of Jesus.  In texts like these, we are forced to confront the message of Jesus in all its forms.

So here are a few things we might note about tonight’s gospel lesson:

First, that Jesus was not “successful” in his ministry in the ways we normally measure success.  Although at times he drew large crowds, there were also a great many who rejected his message and ignored the signs and wonders God did through him.  The fact that so many turned away must have been frustrating, disappointing and discouraging for him, as it would be for us.  At times he must have felt anger and despair.  At one point in the Gospel of John, when the crowds are turning away from him, we sense his frustration when he turns to his disciples and says, “Do you also wish to go away?” (John 6:67).  Passages like these remind us how often Jesus’ words and deeds were met with incomprehension, indifference and outright opposition. And since disciples are not greater than their master, we should not be surprised to encounter the same indifference and rejection in many of those with whom we share the good news.

Second, note that Jesus’ criticism of the peoples of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum is not that they have not believed in him, but that, in spite of what they have seen and heard, they have failed to repent.  They had witnessed God’s power and heard of God’s love and yet had not turned from evil to do good.  Such powerful evidence of God’s loving care, Jesus maintains, would have persuaded even the pagans of Tyre and Sidon, and of Sodom, to turn to God in faith and obedience.  He has harsh words for those who fail to take God seriously or to commit their lives to being part of God’s plan.  They see and hear, but fail to respond.

Third, note that Jesus condemns the unrepentant towns corporately.  They are faulted for glorying in their own importance and for failing to heed signs and wonders and turn to God.  They have discouraged rather than encouraged faith in God.  They have been caught in their own pride.  This is a warning to our own communities and cities and countries, wherever wealth and commerce take priority over human need, wherever pride and privilege cause us to be indifferent towards the things of God.  Do not be blind to what God is doing!

Finally, note Jesus’ warning that the failure to repent, the failure to turn from evil and do good, has long-lasting consequences.  God will judge our actions, and our failure to act.  Greed, misuse of power, disregard for the dignity of other people, lack of respect for the earth, unwarranted violence will all have their consequences, both in our time and in the age to come.

It might be surprising for some of us to hear such sharp words from the lips of Jesus.  But perhaps this is how True Love speaks when we refuse to hear or obey.  Perhaps harsh words are the only way of getting our attention when we act as though we are blind and deaf to what God is doing and saying in our world.  Perhaps this is the form that True Compassion takes when nothing seems to be getting through to us.

Can we imagine Christ saying to us, “Woe to you, Cambridge!  Woe to you, Boston!  Woe to you, United States of America!”  And might this be the Voice of Love, trying to shake us awake from our sleepy indifference?

There are serious questions here for us to consider:

First, we must ask ourselves: In what ways have we been like the people of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum?  What message have we failed to notice and heed?  In what ways have we failed to see or hear God’s presence and power in our world, or having seen and heard it, chosen to ignore it?

We’ve been reading a lot recently about the looming ecological crisis our world is facing.  What has God been saying to us that we have chosen to ignore?  In what ways have we ignored God’s concerns and God’s priorities and clung to our own selfish desires?  Have we been unwilling to repent, to actually change our ways in response to the warnings we are receiving from those who present us with “inconvenient truths”?

What has God been saying to us about the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, in this country and throughout the world?  About the rate at which we are consuming the earth’s resources?  About our addictions to new technologies, to unhealthy foods, to materialism and consumerism, to greed and selfishness, to substances that alter the body and mind, to power and prosperity at any cost?

The failure to repent and change our ways will have drastic consequences, both for ourselves and for others, including our children and the children of future generations.  So perhaps these harsh words of Jesus are words that we too need to hear from time to time, to shake us out of our complacency and indifference, and to set us on the road to genuine repentance and change.

We must ask ourselves:  Where and how is God at work in the world?  What evidence do we see of God’s activity and design?  What are God’s priorities for our world, for our nation and our cities, for the Church, for our families and communities, and for each of us as individuals?  What does God have to say to us about how we should live in relation to one another and to the creation?

There is a story from the Sufi tradition about a spiritual elder who asked some disciples to name what was the most important quality of life: wisdom or action?  “It’s action, of course,” the disciples said.  “After all, of what use is wisdom that does not show itself in action?”  “Ah, yes,” the master said, “but of what use is action that proceeds from an unenlightened heart?”  Busyness alone is not enough to qualify us as spiritual people.  We must be busy about the right things![i]

So, discernment and wisdom are needed to recognize the signs of the times, to perceive the presence and activity of the Divine, and to determine what form our repentance should take.

For this we need God’s help, which is offered to us here tonight in the sacrament of the Eucharist and in the Laying on of Hands for Healing.

Will we accept this call to repentance and conversion of life?  Will we give ourselves to seriously discerning what it is that God asks of us?  Will we accept God’s help, God’s wisdom, God’s strength, God’s encouragement as we seek to live lives that are “worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called”?

Let’s not delay.  Repent, and respond with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength to the challenge Jesus puts before us today.  Let Jesus’ final words to us be words of commendation rather than condemnation: “Well done, good and faithful servants!”

[i] from The Radical Christian Life, by Joan Chittister (Collegeville MN: The Order of St Benedict, 2011); p. vii.

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  1. Barbara bertrand on September 9, 2022 at 21:12

    Just happened upon this. This is so accurate but what can a senior do when much of the time they are at home?

    • Rick Porter on September 19, 2023 at 08:46

      We can smile at others, we can say hello, please and thank you to others, and we can pray. Even in a wheel chair in diapers, we are not powerless to harm or to spread love to others.

  2. carol carlson on July 28, 2020 at 10:35

    How desperately our individualistic culture needs to hear that judgment falls on corporate entities too. Our whole nation, wracked with anger, rife with injustice and the passion to deny it, at all levels, is under God’s judgment at this moment. And many, even in church, can’t or won’t acknowledge it – that’s ‘politics’, which has no place in church. This is, unfortunately, the word we need to hear most right now. Thank you, brothers.

  3. Sally Baynton on July 3, 2019 at 18:33

    Brother David…thank you for this compelling sermon! I want to cry when I think that Jesus might be looking at me and asking, “And, do you too desire to leave Me?” (Amplified Bible). Once I was engaged in a sport that took a lot of time in which to become proficient. Finally, I knew God was asking me to quit the sport because it had become too important in my life. I hesitated. I, too, felt like I needed to do “this and that” before I could quit. Finally, I let it all go. I was blessed; immediately, with no pain, less stress, and more time on my hands to give in service to Him. I have never been happier. We need your words to convict us to “…accept God’s help, God’s wisdom, God’s strength, God’s encouragement as we seek to live lives that are “worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called”? Blessings galore to you!

  4. Michael Lantz on July 21, 2017 at 17:06

    A very thought provoking sermon and well done! Peace.

  5. Maureen on July 20, 2017 at 18:59

    In some ways I see such woes from both Jesus and the prophets in light of things I told my teens many years ago: Woe to you if you drink and drive, you could kill or maim yourself or others; woe to you if you fail to set your alarm clock; for you will be late and get fired.
    He isn’t so much saying God will punish, but that the natural outcome from following a poor course is ruin. Woe to you if you don’t love one another and forgive; or you will end up with more and more deadly conflicts. Woe to you if you don’t care for others or there will be class warfare.

    • Jeanne DeFazio on July 28, 2020 at 11:03

      Brother David I have quoted you in my latest book, An Artistic Tribute to Harriet Tubmamn. I will send you a copy. God bless you for speaking the truth in God’s Word!

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