Insert text here.
Although it may sound strange or unfair to us, when Jesus condemned entire cities he spoke in the time-worn style of the Old Testament prophets.
Then Jesus began to rebuke the cities in which most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent: "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you.
"And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you, it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you."
Matthew 11:20-24, NJKV condensed
Judgment Day Woes
If we made a list of the 5 most tragic statements of Jesus, this passage would be near the top. The words are hurtful and insulting. I surely would never want to hear them. Jesus said in effect, "I am so sorry and afraid for you on judgment day. How terrible it will be. Your enemies will fare better than you!" We can feel the frustration in Jesus' voice as he launched into this stinging rebuke.
Chorazin and Bethsaida were Galilean cities. Their names are not familiar to us except that several of Jesus' "fishermen" disciples came from Bethsaida. Many of the residents of these towns were Jewish in background and culture, their faith characterized by the concept of being the "chosen people" of their one true and sovereign God. They liked to believe that the commandments of Moses and the proclamations of the ancient Prophets governed their lives.
In contrast, Tyre and Sidon were Phoenician cities along the Mediterranean Sea just to the northwest of Galilee. The Jews remembered them as enemy invaders, the ones who threatened their peace, stole their crops and goods, even captured their wives and children. The people of Tyre and Sidon were thought of as degenerate Gentiles without the benefit of God's Law and favor.
Situated on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, the fishing town of Capernaum was the home base for Jesus' ministry. It was quite possibly the most favored spot on earth and could have remained that way forever if its people had repented and accepted their Savior. Instead, Jesus compared Capernaum to the Old Testament city of Sodom, which, according to the Genesis story, God destroyed because of its sinfulness. How could it be that the shameful city of Sodom, whose Gentile inhabitants never had the advantage of knowing the mercies of God, would have a better chance on judgment day than the people of Capernaum who witnessed Jesus within their midst on a regular basis!
What was the great sin of these "righteous" cities in Galilee? Jesus said nothing about immoral or unethical behavior. Instead, he rebuked them because they did not repent. Over and over again they had witnessed the miracles firsthand without affirming the Source of those supernatural happenings.
Those who had the greatest opportunity to see the handiwork of their loving heavenly Father, missed it! How could this be? Did familiarity breed contempt? Were they blinded by skepticism, or possibly even by the routines and rituals of their faith? Was their vision clouded by fear, suspicion, indifference, jealousy, preoccupation with other things? Maybe Jesus didn't look like a Messiah, or say and do the right things. Ironically, these people of God did not recognize the revelations of God all around them! Their hearts and minds were closed to such possibilities, and Jesus agonized over their unbelief.
Jesus made a connection between miracles and repentance. Miracles express God's kindness and mercy. They catch our attention. Take us by surprise. A healing miracle restores mind and body to their origin state of health and performance. Repentance is our response to God's kindness and mercy. It catches God's attention. Like a miracle, repentance also repairs the brokenness. It restores and transforms our soul to a life-giving relationship with God and each other. Miracles are a work of God; repentance is our job.
To repent means to change course. If I am going in one direction, when I repent, I turn around and go the opposite way. It was Jesus' hope and expectation that the healing of mind and body would mean the healing of souls, too. God comes to us again and again. But, for that relationship to be complete, we must turn and meet God on the way.
Those of us who are able to read the Bible and hear the words of the Gospel are privileged, and more will be required of us on judgment day. If we remain cold, stubborn, arrogant and unaffected, it doesn't matter how moral, decent and respectable we think we are. When we refuse to repair the brokenness, we could actually be more guilty than the people of sin city who never knew their Maker's abundant grace!
These are sobering words. Because we, too, have many opportunities to see God in our midst . . . and repent. The other side of the grace coin is accountability. God is wonderful and does so much for us. But what do we do in return! Miracles are God's gift to us; repentance is our gift to God.
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: Describe briefly the town you call home, or a favorite place where you once lived.
How do you think Jesus felt as he spoke his words of woe? How might people have reacted to this message? What would Jesus say to your community if he visited today?
In the Gospels, unbelief was portrayed as a critical, unhappy and you're-not-going-to-change-me attitude. In contrast, those who believed celebrated with joyful thanksgiving and saw the mighty hand of God in each miracle. Is this an accurate description of belief and unbelief?
Give an example of something you consider a miracle (a mighty work of God). What makes it a miracle? Explain how miracles help you believe in God.
The "righteous" were harder for Jesus to win over than "sinners". Why would this be? Many sins are obvious, but what are the sins of the "righteous"? What would it take, or does it take, to bring you to repentance?
Jesus' goal was to lead everyone home to their heavenly Father. He never forced anyone, so how did/does he gain a following?
Who are God's "chosen" people? Discuss the meaning of the phrase, "God's chosen people choose to be." What are some expectations and responsibilities which accompany this privilege?
Jesus frequently spoke about judgment day, which reminds us this world is not all there is. This life may only be chapter one. To what extent do these thoughts affect how you live and make choices on a day-to-day basis?
Give an example from your life when you changed courses--You were headed in one direction and then turned and went the other way. What precipitated the change?Now think of your spiritual life. Were you ever going in a direction with your back to God, and then you turned around and faced God? If so, describe that experience.
Here's a way you could test your own repentance, using the lines of the Lord's prayer:
Our Father in heaven-- Do I live my days treating everyone as my brother and sister since we all have a common Father in heaven?
Hallowed be God's name-- Do I bring honor to my Father in heaven by the way I speak, act and react? Thy will be done on earth-- Do I do whatever I can to create heaven on earth for myself and those with whom I come into contact? Give us this day our daily bread-- Do I recognize that everything I have, and life itself, is a precious gift from God? Forgive us . . . as we forgive others-- Do I forgive others as freely as I want God to forgive me. Lead me not into temptation-- Do I skirt temptation as best I can? Deliver me from evil-- Do I sincerely want God to deliver me from all that is evil?For thine is the kingdom, power and glory, forever-- Do I live my life as though God really is supreme above all else?Amen.-- Do I trust, and feel safe in, the ever-present hands of God?