Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades or if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you” (Matthew 11:20-24).
Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum: What had they done to deserve such reproach? What had they done to earn such a curse?
Nothing. They’d done nothing. And that was the point. In the words of the old King James, “…they repented not” (11:20).
Our great grand-daddy of Presbyterians, John Calvin, in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, named their indifference was the sin of ingratitude. It was, he wrote, “As if there had never been poured upon it a drop of Divine grace.” The punishment would be greater “in proportion to the higher favors which it had received from God” (https://www.ccel.org/study/Matt_11:22-11:24).
Simply put, the miracles dazzled their eyes, but didn’t change their hearts. Jesus wasn’t a Messiah to them; he was a magician, nothing more. Their hearts weren’t changed. They didn’t turn their lives around. That’s what “repent” means, after all. “To turn around.” To turn from the old and embrace the new. To turn from sin and choose virtue instead. To turn from death and rejoice in new life.
But, u-turns are hard to make some times…for lots of reasons. Even when you’ve had that heart stopping moment of God’s presence wrapped around you, even when you’ve experienced the grace of Jesus Christ in the unexplainable forgiveness of the person you’ve hurt, even when you’ve seen the pages of scripture jump out at you, and you know in your heart that it’s true and real and good…
But, what will my friends and family think?
But, does that mean I can’t ever drink or watch an R movie again?
But, I don’t want to be one of those intolerant, self-righteous hypocrites, do I?
But, I’m fine the way I am.
But, I can take care of myself.
And all the signs of God’s redeeming grace disappear to our sight, and we go on, straight ahead, business as usual. That’s not how the story is supposed to end.
I was in fifth grade when my family received an anonymous gift. It was a pair of Ethan Allen wingback chairs, in a floral chintz with velvet cushions. I don’t know what an Ethan Allen wingback chair cost back then, but I looked them up, and they sell for about $1700 these days. Our chairs were lovely, and all the lovelier because the rest of our furniture was, well, let’s say tired. We lived on modest means, and my mom wasn’t much of an interior decorator. Picture a church youth room, and you’ll have a decent idea of what our living room looked like until the Ethan Allen wingback chairs arrived.
The gift made us look at the rest of our sad furniture differently. Mom bought a new slipcover for the sofa. We kids got better about picking up our stuff, and the room got cleaner. The gift made us look at ourselves differently. My mom—who never invited friends over, ever—invited one of my sister’s music teachers over for dinner. The gift changed how we lived from them on.
Meeting Jesus is a gift, even better than Ethan Allen wingback chairs, and—Jesus makes it clear—the encounter is intended to change how we live. It’s intended to change how we look at the rest of our lives and start cleaning up of old ideas, sorting the positive parts of our lives from the parts that tear us down, de-cluttering the unintended busyness that keeps us from rest and faith, and inevitably discarding the tired sins that separate us from God
The gift of Jesus is intended to change us forever. The people in Capernaum failed to change, and Jesus cursed them for it. It’s a sad ending to his ministry there. The funny thing is, later on, he strikes a softer tone—
I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak (John 12:47-50).
Maybe Jesus was reminding us that, after all, conversion is God’s work primarily and our response secondarily.
From Capernaum, Jesus will continue his ministry and eventually turn his face to Jerusalem. If we’re paying attention, so will we turn our faces to Jerusalem, through Lent while we acknowledge our need of repentance, into Holy Week as we witness the excruciating sacrifice of Christ, and onto Easter morning when we celebrate again that all love conquers all.
Will these weeks ahead bring us closer to God, or are we just fine the way we are? Will we try even a little harder to put Christ at the center of our lives, or will the kids, the dogs, the house, the work, the bills, the games, the schoolwork…come first? Will these weeks ahead change us, even a little bit? Or will it be business as usual?
Will we hear Jesus calling? Will we answer?