This sonnet is based upon Luke 11:37-12:3 where Jesus pronounces woes upon the Pharisees and lawyers. The passage reads,
While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. 38 The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. 39 And the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you.
42 “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 43 Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. 44 Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.”
45 One of the lawyers answered him, “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also.” 46 And he said, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. 47 Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. 48 So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. 49 Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ 50 so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation. 52 Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.”
53 As he went away from there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to press him hard and to provoke him to speak about many things, 54 lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.
12:1 In the meantime, when so many thousands of the people had gathered together that they were trampling one another, he began to say to his disciples first, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. 2 Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 3 Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.
For both the Pharisees and the lawyers (scribes), the glory they seek or the power of counsel they offer only leads to one place: death. It will be the glory of unmarked graves for the Pharisees who love to sit in the seat of honor and be greeted in the marketplace, and it will be judgment and accountability for the oppression and bloodshed which the scribe’s counsel leads to and inspires. Neither the scrupulous avoidance of taboos, nor rigorous application of legal guidance will lead to liberty, purity, and life. One has come however, who will make clean, who will honor with love and bring light even into the darkness of death.
You may listen to me read the sonnet via the player below.
He invited the teacher to dinner
In a pious show of hospitality;
“But not washing?” He thought him a sinner;
“A dirty messiah? How could he be?”
When the scribes claimed he was being too hard,
He opened the door to their brutality–
Who rather than unlock, hindered and barred;
Instead of loosing the lock, losing the key.
The honor you lust, is as unmarked graves
Woe to you who wash in that devotion;
Shackled to self, you’ll sink ‘neath those waves
Swallowed by night in pride’s pitiless ocean.
But in the dirt of his death, becoming sin, He makes right
Washes free the tomb’s terror, and floods us in light.
© Randall Edwards 2017
This poem is for Christ’s church. If it is helpful, please feel free to copy or reprint in church bulletins, read aloud, or repost. I only ask that an attribution be cited to myself (Randall Edwards) and this blog (backwardmutters.com). Thanks.
Artist: James Tissot, Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens (Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees), between 1886 and 1894, opaque watercolor.