By Michael E. Brooks
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes….And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day” (Matthew 11:21, 23).
Places frequently have particular reputations for culture, beauty, influence or life style. The mere mention of San Francisco, Los Vegas, New York, London, Rio de Janeiro, Bangkok, Hong Kong, or Paris (to name only a few) brings instant association for good or bad to most who hear. Other less famous locations have similar associations for those who have experience there. Some places cultivate reputations for good, featuring the beauty and innate value of the geographic area, historical, artistic or architectural features, or other positive contributions. In contrast, other places seem to delight in unsavory reputations.
In the ancient world, this last category was represented by cities such as Sodom, Gomorrah, Tyre, Sidon, Nineveh, Rome and Corinth. To the Jewish people in particular each of these cities was known for its paganism, corruption and pervasive evil. They had no doubt that God’s judgment against them would be swift and terrible. In contrast the faithful cities and peaceful villages of Israel such as Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Chorazin would surely find favor in the sight of God.
In the midst of these comfortable assumptions Jesus proclaimed woe to the inhabitants of these “righteous” places. Things were not what they seemed to be. They claimed to be servants of God, but the truth was that they had rejected him and the one whom he had sent. They did this even in spite of great and repeated miracles testifying to his identity and authority. Jesus stated that if some of the most wicked cities of the past had seen these miracles, they would have repented and been forgiven by God. What a preposterous idea! What an insult! Capernaum condemned and Sodom forgiven? How could that be?
Many inhabitants of quiet and pleasant places today might be surprised at God’s realistic assessment of their status. Things are not always as they seem. A so-called “Christian” nation may be anything but. A pagan, wicked city may be that primarily because of ignorance and lack of opportunity. Even Nineveh, the ancient capital of Assyria, repented at Jonah’s preaching.
When I mention travel to Asia, Africa or other remote (to North Americans) locations, I am frequently greeted with expressions of alarm or even distaste. “Why do you want to go there?” “Aren’t you afraid (of terrorists, crime, disease, etc.)? My response is usually, “I have about the same risks there that I would have in any city in our country.” The truth is that risks in many exotic places are far less than in my home territory. The people I visit are often more honest, more religious and more receptive than the “righteous” inhabitants of my native land.
Jesus point was that it is our willingness to believe God’s word and respond to him that determines true righteousness. Reputation and perception is of little value. The Jewish village that claimed to keep the law but would not recognize prophecy that was fulfilled in their presence was less righteous than the idolatrous city which never knew God but had limited opportunity to acquire such knowledge. So today, the smug, self-righteous “Bible belt” town may be much further in heart from God than the foreign cities still enslaved to idols but willing to turn to the truth when and if they hear it. Let us receive the message brought to us by Christ, lest we also perish.
By Michael E. Brooks