The “Woes”

If you know what a chiasm is, you must have a poetic or rhetorical soul. A chiasm is a figure of speech that leads the reader to the middle of a poem or of an essay or, in this case, the Gospel to highlight what the author thinks is really important. St. Matthew's Gospel bears some striking examples of chiastic structure. For instance, in the very first chapter of the Gospel, St. Matthew announces that the name of the Savior will be "Emmanuel," a name which means "God with us." On the opposite end of the Gospel, in the very last chapter, St. Matthew tells us that the very last words of Jesus before he returned to the Father were: And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age. (Matthew 28:20)

Chapter Five of the Gospel presents us with Jesus' very first discourse or teaching. That discourse begins with the very well-known "beatitudes," eight statements that begin with the word "blessed" or "happy are they. . ." Conversely, chapter twenty-three of St. Matthew's Gospel presents us with the fifth and last such discourse. As we might expect of a writer who is using chiasm, the closing verses of this discourse are the polar opposite of the Beatitudes. Here we read Jesus' denunciation of the Pharisees and Jewish authorities. He uses the words "woe to you," as the antithesis of happiness. The Greek word for "woe" itself is powerful as it is used to connote grief at the passing of a loved one.

The Pharisees prided themselves on the observance of the Law. This in itself is not bad. Being a law-abiding citizen myself, I can identify with the Pharisees. However, they trip up when they begin to forget the heart of the Law; namely, love of God and love of neighbor. For their refusal to put aside the arbitrary rules such as dietary restrictions and rules governing the purification of vessels, etc., Jesus denounces them and cautions people against emulating their piety.

We should not read this chapter while pointing fingers at others. Even St. Matthew was not singling out the Pharisees. He included this chapter in his Gospel because he was seeing some of the same scrupulous attention to arbitrary rituals in his own Christian community. Thus, we would all do well to take a hard look at whether our lives are characterized by the evangelical counsels of faith, hope and charity rather than scrupulous attention to custom and tradition.

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

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