Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum,
will you be exalted to heaven?
No, you will be brought down to Hades.
For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.”
Matthew 11:20-24 (NRSV)
This comes, narratively, after Jesus has praised John the Baptist and positioned his work in the line of Old Testament prophets and being the herald of the Messiah. He ends this with a note that, even though John the Baptist has come like Elijah and Jesus has come like one of them, they are still unresponsive.
That introduces this bit where Jesus gets a little worked up over this idea and delivers some very prophetic claims of his own.
First, Jesus contrasts the cities of Judea where he has been at work with traditionally wicked cities from Israel’s past history. Both Tyre and Sidon were historical enemies of Israel, and both were prophesied against as we see in Ezekiel 28. Both cities were threatened by destruction via conquest, and both cities were so conquered in the course of time.
These cities become the prototypes for what Jesus announces will happen to Israel. And they are not just prototypes, but condemnations. Because for all their historical opposition to Israel, Jesus is of the mind that, if they experienced Jesus’ words and work, they would have listened and repented.
This is not the first time this idea has come up in Matthew.
For example, Matthew describes a scene where a Roman centurion – a pagan oppressor of Israel – comes to Jesus in Capernaum and believes Jesus can heal his servant. Jesus announces that no one in Israel has shown the faith that this centurion has, and that many foreigners would find themselves in the kingdom of God eating and talking with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, while many Israelites would find themselves shut out of it.
In Capernaum, a pagan oppressor of Israel believes Jesus, but the Israelite people of Capernaum themselves do not.
And so, as he did in chapter 8, Jesus turns these counter-examples against unrepentant Israel. These pagan oppressors of Israel would repent, but Israel herself would not. When the terrible Day of the Lord comes, Israel will find herself much worse off than these historical oppressors have found themselves.
Speaking of Capernaum, Jesus reserves a little quote for them. This could be a summation of Ezekiel 28:1-10, where the prince of Tyre exalts himself as a god, but God will bring him down to the Pit. But it more directly matches Isaiah 14:13-15, which is a prophecy against Babylon. Either way, the parallels Jesus is drawing are clear – here are pagan enemies of Israel that God shattered with another nation. You, corrupt Israel, have become the oppressor of the people of Israel, and your day is coming when God will shatter you, and your heritage will mean nothing on that day.
Finally, Jesus draws from a comparison of Israel to Sodom that the Old Testament prophets also make. In Ezekiel 16, we read that Jerusalem has become a “sister” to Sodom and Samaria. They have followed after their ways, yet they have become even worse. In what way have they become worse? The prophet tells us:
As I live, says the Lord God, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.
Ezekiel 16:48-50 (NRSV, emphasis mine)
That’s an interesting bit of information, isn’t it? God destroyed Sodom primarily for their pride and unwillingness to use their prosperity to help the poor, and this becomes part of the prophet’s case against Jerusalem. And this is how the chapter runs itself out: you used to refer to Sodom as a byword, but now you are about to be destroyed as they were, and I will restore your fortunes when I restore hers.
Jesus brings that message forward into his day. The Israel of Jesus’ day has become a worse oppressor of her own than any of those historic enemies of Israel; but, in Jesus’ opinion, any of those historic enemies would have repented if Jesus had been doing his works and preaching his message in them. (In fact, we have an Old Testament depiction of this in Nineveh’s response to Jonah.) Because of this, these great cities of Israel should expect that they, too will meet a fate in their day of judgement that will be even worse than what those other cities experienced.
This is, in fact, what happened.
- Put yourself in the position of a Jewish religious official in first century Judea. You’re doctrinally sound. Everyone comes to you with questions about the Bible and how to live a faithful life. You are respected, and it appears God has blessed your life with wealth and influence. How would Jesus’ message that you are actually unfaithful strike you? What evidence would you muster to argue against that? What would have to happen in order for Jesus’ message to break through?
- How can we be aware of when we are falling short? Where could those messages come from and how should we receive them? How can we communicate these things to others?