Today’s gospel is filled with woe. In a rather short passage, a clearly disgruntled Jesus utters four declarations of woe, warning the Pharisees and a “scholar of the law” that they will all come to a sorry end if they do not redirect their misguided lives.
The gospel is a lesson in how easy it is to get sidetracked by the trivial or to be all tangled up with things that aren’t nearly as important as we think. Jesus is exasperated with the Pharisees because they are so obsessed with paying tithes on garden plants or so concerned about having the best seat in the synagogue where they surely will be noticed that they have completely forgotten what truly matters. Similarly, the lawyer may be a wizard when it comes to legal matters, but since he’s especially adept at making things harder for others (“You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them.”), his life is hurtling in the wrong direction.
But are we really any different? Haven’t all of us, like these Pharisees and the lawyer, sometimes lived by the wrong priorities? Haven’t we too occasionally given lesser things far more attention than they deserve and more important things not nearly enough? If so, Jesus’ promises of woe are meant for us as well. And yet, there is hope. We can move from woe to well being, from death-in-life to real life, if we replace all that might be misguided about our lives with the fruits of the Spirit that Paul delineates in the reading from Galatians. As he assures us, we make our way into the Kingdom of God when our lives are characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If we embody those virtues, all our woes will soon be left behind.
Paul J. Wadell is Professor of Theology & Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, and a member of the extended Passionist family.