You’ve heard the old joke about the man who bought a horse from a very religious owner. The horse didn’t respond to the normal commands like “giddiup” for “go” and “whoa” for “stop.” The religious man who had trained the horse taught him to “go” at the word “hallelujah” and the “stop” command was “praise the Lord.”
So, the gentleman bought the horse and started his ride. He said “hallelujah” and the horse started going. But as the man travelled, he was enjoying his ride on his new horse and started thinking about other things. The horse was going faster and faster and the rider saw they were coming to a very dangerous cliff. Try as he might, he simply couldn’t remember the command for “stop!” He tried everything from the traditional “whoa” to other religious words he knew, but nothing worked. Just as the horse was about to go over the cliff, the man finally remembered and he shouted “praise the Lord!” The horse came to an immediate halt just at the edge of the cliff. The terrified man took his hat off, wiped his brow, and as a sigh of great relief he said “hallelujah!”
We can get in real trouble when we fail to pay attention to life’s details!
For instance, in the scriptures there are instances in both the Old Testament and the New Testament about strong warnings concerning behaviors and choices and attitudes that lead a person to a life of spiritual slavery. Many times the prophets will begin these warnings with the word “woe.” This word is defined as meaning “great sorrow or distress.” Our Lord Jesus has a famous series of “woes” in the Gospels that warn us of practicing our faith without love or compassion. When the Lord or one of the prophets start out warning us by saying “Woe to…” we better pay attention.
In our Scripture Lesson today we come to one of these serious places. In Isaiah 5:16-25, the prophet Isaiah declares four “Woes” to the People of God. His powerful warning is meant to draw the People of God away from the cliff of self-destruction if only they will listen to his warnings.
Look at the passage:
But the LORD of hosts is exalted in justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness. Then shall the lambs graze as in their pasture, fatlings and kids shall feed among the ruins. Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood, who draw sin as with cart ropes, who say: “Let him make haste, let him speed his work that we may see it; let the purpose of the Holy One of Israel draw near, and let it come, that we may know it!” Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight! Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right! Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will be as rottenness, and their blossom go up like dust; for they have rejected the law of the LORD of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel. Therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people, and he stretched out his hand against them and smote them, and the mountains quaked; and their corpses were as refuse in the midst of the streets. For all this his anger is not turned away and his hand is stretched out still.
The first Woe is “Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood, who draw sin as with cart ropes, who say: ‘Let him make haste, let him speed his work that we may see it; let the purpose of the Holy One of Israel draw near, and let it come, that we may know it!'” (Isaiah 5:18-19) This can be a bit confusing, so let’s examine what the prophet is saying. As you read what these people are saying, it sounds almost good. But their words hide a poisonous heart. The prophet is warning against the foolish notion that we can command God. The words spoken refer to God doing what He promised. The attitude is “OK, God, put up or shut up.” The whole attitude is one of demanding God perform rather than waiting patiently on the promises of God. Arrogance rather than humility. Pride rather than devotion. Lies rather than love. Woe to those who dress their doubt in false acts of piety!
The second Woe is “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!”(Isaiah 5:20) This is pretty clear. Sorrow and sadness will follow the person who tries to say bad is good and dark is light. In our society today we have many who call their insistence on their own way “liberation” rather than the sad reality of their own slavery. And yet, no matter how “acceptable” society says darkness is, it’s still darkness.
The third Woe is “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!”(Isaiah 5:21) The power of arrogant self assurance to blind us to the pitfalls of our own folly is legendary. A life that lacks the humility of being willing to learn is marked by the shortsighted sadness of the limits of your own “wisdom.” The ability to humbly learn, even from your enemies, always makes your life fuller and wiser.
The final Woe declares “Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!”(Isaiah 5:22-23) Sadness and distress will follow the person gripped by the addictions of intoxicants. Addiction to alcohol is an easy illustration of this self-destructive behavior, but the same “woe” applies to all our addictions. A lack of sobriety in our lives leads us to even sacrifice the well being of others by allowing the guilty to go free for a bribe, and take advantage of the less fortunate by depriving them of justice and mercy. Addictions feed selfishness. All addictions do this in our lives. Always.
Today, when you read the scriptures and the prophet or the Lord says “Woe to…” it’s time to shout to your soul “WHOA! STOP! There’s a cliff just ahead!” Your life is in danger if you ignore these wise “woes.” Allow the insights and wisdom of the Faith to strengthen your ability to discern when your life is gripped by these addictions, and let the wise spiritual medicine of the faith cure your soul of these illnesses and keep your life from going over the cliff of blind, self-centered choices. As Great Lent progresses, let’s be Orthodox on Purpose by humbly listening to the wisdom of the Church!
P.S. One powerful way to avoid the woes of disobedience is the power of silence to still our hearts to hear God’s loving voice. The Fathers called this discipline of silence “hesychia” or The Way of Silence. But how do you practice silence in a world of noisy business? Listen this Sunday to Faith Encouraged LIVE as we explore the Way of Silence as a powerful prescription for peace! My special guest will be Fr. Philip Zymaris of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology! That’s this Sunday at 8 PM on AncientFaith.com