Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time.
Thus says the LORD: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.
Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse– who can understand it? I the LORD test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.
[Jesus] came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
Somewhere in my computer files, I have a picture of me in a museum in St. Andrews, Scotland, posing jokingly with a statue of john Knox, 16th century Presbyterian firebrand of a preacher. I’m pretending to be shocked and awed while he leans over the pulpit, fist shaking in outrage.
I’ve never been much of a finger-pointing preacher. Not really my style to shake the fist and pound the pulpit. But if ever scripture encouraged it, today’s just might.
As I’ve been pondering the gifts our faith brings us in this post-blessing season, I’ve mostly been (naturally) coming up with warm, fuzzy things—community, worship, love and the like. When I first read this morning’s scriptures, I thought I might talk today about the gift of blessings—the many blessings God pours into our lives.
And I could have, and maybe some of you would have preferred that sermon. But I was drawn instead, perhaps for the first time for me, to the flip side of that coin—to the warnings, the curseds, and the woes.
I have been known to cut off the beatitudes after the blessings and not mention the woes. I have been known to read quickly over the “cursed are they” bits in the Old Testament. They just don’t fit with my idea of God—loving and gracious to all.
I don’t believe in a God who curses us, who wishes us ill. I just don’t. But then what do I do with passages like this, and how can they possibly be a gift?
It was a bit too perfect then, that I received an email in my inbox this week with one of the stranger subject lines I’ve seen in a while. It just read “curse tablets???” followed by three question marks.
Turns out, it was from my dad, who had seen some tweet or other about curse tablets in the ancient world, and as your friendly neighborhood classicist, he’d reached out to me to learn more.
In case you, like my dad, did not have Eric Casey as your classics professor and missed out on the fascinating world of curse tablets, let me fill you in. they are to some extent exactly what they sound like. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, people believed that you could curse someone by invoking the right god or using the right words. You could buy these little tablets, about the size of my iPad usually, often made of lead, and either have them custom-inscribed with the curse of your choice, or buy them premade and just insert the name of the person you wanted cursed into a generic template.
The curses range from fairly tame to spectacularly inventive—many involve cursing people to become dizzy, sick, sleepless, unable to speak or to flirt or to walk. Most of the curse tablets we’ve found have to do with lawsuits, property loss, sports, or ex-girlfriends—which proves that humanity’s obsessions have not changed terribly over the centuries.
There was also on occasion the nuclear option: tablets that simply read “destroy them completely.”
They’re a fascinating glimpse into the wider culture the Jewish people found themselves swimming amidst—a culture that believed if you could say just the right words, a god would happily and carelessly hurt someone else on your behalf. A culture that literally had a store where you could buy curses for your neighbors. And it’s not as if these would have been unheard of amongst Jesus’ Jewish followers. Archaeologists have found tablets even in Jerusalem, and several that use Hebrew and early Christian language mixed in with the regular pagan jargon.
Against this backdrop, the curses of the Bible stand in stark relief. The prophet Jeremiah says, “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.”
It is a curse of a kind, but not one of malice. If anything, it is a curse of consequences. Cut yourself off from God, Jeremiah says, and you’ll find yourself without the very thing that gives you life. No one is cursing such people—they are doing it to themselves. God certainly isn’t out to hurt them. They are hurting themselves by turning their back on all God’s gifts to them—love and hope, peace and power. No wonder they end up dry and brittle.
The ancient Greeks and romans bought curse tablets because they were afraid people wouldn’t suffer the consequences of their actions—whether that was stealing, suing, or sleeping with the wrong person—unless the Gods came down and forced those consequences on them. Jeremiah’s God, on the other hand, is desperate to warn people of the consequences of their actions so God can save the people from them. God doesn’t want the people hurt worse. God wants them to make the choices that hurt them less.
To be, as Jeremiah says, like trees planted by streams, soaking up all the gifts God has to offer them.
Likewise, in the beatitudes, after all those lovely blesseds, we have those last few verses I always dread: Jesus’ own downer, the woes. Especially because the kind of person Jesus is woe-ing sounds a lot like the person I too often strive to be—wealthy, well-fed, well-entertained, and well-liked.
When we hear these “woe to yous” I think we imagine Jesus as that preacher with the shaking fist and the booming voice. But the Greek word for woe is not one of anger—it’s one of grief. Of sadness. The word itself is soft—ouai. You can almost hear Jesus softening his voice and shaking his head, not his fist. Plen ouai humin—but woe to you. Woe to you who are rich, overstuffed, popular, above it all. Woe to you who have it all now, because you haven’t left room for God.
I hear Jesus saying: I’m sad for you, because you’ve settled for the best of this life, when God could offer you so much more.
It’s not the promise of punishment. It’s the heavy-hearted acknowledgement that choices have consequences, and that it will be hard to see the reign of God if we’re chasing everything but.
And I’ve seen it in my own life, those consequences. The more I focus on getting money, the less I focus on being part of God’s generosity. The more I focus on always being ‘up’ and having a good time, the less I have room for compassion for those who are hurting. The more I focus on everyone liking me, the less faithful I am as a disciple.
And I see why that would make God sad. But it doesn’t feel like a curse. It just feels like a consequence. And because we have these laid out in scripture for us, clear as day, these are consequences we don’t have to stumble into.
If we truly hear God’s word to us in scripture, what we have here is not a curse, but a warning.
And warnings, it turns out, can be absolutely an act of love. I didn’t love being told what to do as a kid. But as I have grown older and wiser, I’ve learned that sometimes the most loving thing you can do is let someone know they’re in trouble before they go off the rails.
I was in awe this week of a colleague who managed to pull off just that trick. A member of the group we were with was making jokes that bordered on demeaning to a particular group of people. She was able, so calmly, to let him know it was time to stop. It didn’t come across as scolding or punishing. She simply drew the line, and said here. This is where you don’t cross.
And Jesus does the same. This is the line, he says—this is the line where you give up on God’s blessings and get greedy for the blessings of the world. This is the line you don’t want to cross. This is the balance you don’t want to tip.
I think about the people I am most grateful for in my life, and they are people who I trust to step in and say, “this won’t be good for you. This won’t be healthy for you. This will have consequences you won’t like.” I’m grateful for their counsel.
Why wouldn’t I be grateful to scripture for God’s counsel?
These warnings are not because God is eager to punish us but because God is eager to save us. Let me say that again. These warnings are not because God is eager to punish us but because God is eager to save us.
God knows, as Jeremiah says, that our hearts are “devious and perverse”—or, in slightly less melodramatic language, prone to terrible judgment calls. Left on our own, which no guidance or direction or boundaries, we are liable to make a mess of things.
And so God gives us the gift of warnings, the gift of guidance, the gift of boundaries.
This is the good life, God says. The life that is lived in me, rooted in my grace, focused on my love.
It’s not an obvious gift, the gift of warnings. It can feel as itchy and uncomfortable and unwanted as that sweater your great-aunt Mabel always made you. We’d rather be free. We’d rather do just what we want, when we want, how we want. And we can. We’ve all crossed that line, and we’ve all found out what happens when we do.
And so I have found that life is better when I listen to the voices of wisdom. And I can’t think of better wisdom than what’s in this book.
So it turns out that maybe I’ve preached this sermon about blessings after all.
For the gift of the curses, the woes, and the warnings, thanks be to God. Amen.