“Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.” (Matt 11:20–24)

Thus did Jesus criticize the Israelite towns of Chorazin (Khirbet Kerazeh) and Bethsaida (“House of Fish”) for their lack of response to his appeal to return to God with full hearts and ready hands. Capernaum, too, was included in this threat, even though the evangelists remember this as Jesus’ home town (Matt 4:13; Mark 9:1). Although “where most of [Jesus’] mighty deeds had been done” (Matt 11:20b) in these three towns at the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee, and although they were home to many of Jesus’ earliest disciples, they certainly caught his ire at this point.

A view of the Sea of Galilee from Capernaum

The “mighty deeds” are Jesus’ works demonstrating that the power of God is active through him; usually we call them “miracles.” Chapters 8–9 of Matthew’s Gospel contain a series of healing miracles that are set in the environs of the Sea of Galilee, one of which explicitly is said to have occurred in Capernaum (the cure of the Roman Centurion’s servant, in Matt. 8:5–13). Perhaps we are to take the entire set as taking place in the three towns rebuked in this saying.

In the scene with the Roman Centurion, this Gentile is praised by Jesus while the Jews of Galilee are implicitly reprimanded—“Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith” (Matt. 8:10). In this saying in Matt. 11, however, there is nothing implicit about the criticism. Matthew makes the shocking claim that even the infamous Gentile town of Sodom will fare better than these Israelite towns on Judgment Day. You see, the Gentiles are converting,

An artist’s rendering of the “House of the Fisher” in Bethsaida

coming to faith in the true God, because of Jesus and his “mighty deeds.” They recognize that these miraculous works are wrought by the power of God, not Satan, so they accept Jesus as God’s emissary and accept his teaching.

The Jews of Galilee, however, are not so willing as their pagan counterparts to recognize the power of God working through Jesus. Because of this, they end up in a sense changing places with the Gentiles, opposing God rather than turning toward God and welcoming this “new thing” God is doing through Jesus. If the Jewish towns continue in this way, they will end up under the kind of Divine judgment that led to the destruction of the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:16–19:29).

Many people misunderstand the Genesis story about Sodom and Gomorrah, linking it with homosexual practice rather than the death-dealing injustice and lack of hospitality that comprise the key complaints against these Gentile cities. However, in some ways this warning of Jesus does not depend upon a correct understanding of that Genesis story. All that is necessary to get Jesus’ point is to remember that Sodom was destroyed by heavenly fire, and Jesus is threatening that it will be much worse for these Israelite towns who refuse to recognize him as God’s chosen instrument.

Contemporary Christians who tend to point a finger at others, judging them to be less moral and threatening them with God’s wrath might take heed to Jesus’ warning. The “religious” people are not the ones Jesus is commending here, but the people others see as irreligious, idolatrous, “pagan.” A contemporary American “translation” might read, “But I tell you, it will be easier for Al Qaeda (or gays, or those who support the national health care plan, or whatever other group you most love to hate) on the Day of Judgment than for you.”

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The Bible According to McGinn

People, places, and other points of interest relating to the Biblical texts

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