Matthew 11:20-24

THE ACCENT OF HEARTBROKEN
CONDEMNATION

Matt. 11:20-24

Then he began to reproach the cities in which the most numerous of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. “Alas for you Chorazin! Alas for you Bethsaida! For, if the deeds of power which happened in you had happened in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented in sackcloth and ashes long ago. But I tell you, it will be easier for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you! And you Capernaum, is it not true that you have been lifted up to heaven? You win go down to Hell, for, if the deeds of power which happened in you had happened amongst the men of Sodom, they would have survived to this day. But I tell you–it will be easier for the land of the men of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you.”

When John came to the end of his gospel, he wrote a sentence in which he indicated how impossible it was ever to write a complete account of the life of Jesus: “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (Jn.21:25). This passage of Matthew is one of the proofs of that saying.

Chorazin was probably a town an hour’s journey north of Capernaum; Bethsaida was a fishing village on the west bank of jordan, just as the river entered the northern end of the lake. Clearly the most tremendous things happened in these towns, and yet we have no account of them whatever. There is no record in the gospels of the work that Jesus did, and of the wonders he performed in these places, and yet they must have been amongst his greatest. A passage like this shows us how little we know of Jesus; it shows us–and we must always remember it–that in the gospels we have only the barest selection of Jesus’ works. The things we do not know about Jesus far outnumber the things we do know.

We must be careful to catch the accent in Jesus’ voice as he said this. The Revised Standard Version has it: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!” The Greek word for woe which we have translated “alas” is ouai (GSN3759); and ouai expresses sorrowful pity at least as much as it does anger. This is not the accent of one who is in a temper because his self-esteem has been touched; it is not the accent of one who is blazingly angry because he has been insulted. It is the accent of sorrow, the accent of one who offered men the most precious thing in the world and saw it disregarded. Jesus’ condemnation of sin is holy anger, but the anger comes, not from outraged pride, but from a broken heart.

What then was the sin of Chorazin, of Bethsaida, of Capernaum, the sin which was worse than the sin of Tyre and Sidon, and of Sodom and Gomorrah? It must have been very serious for again and again Tyre and Sidon are denounced for their wickedness (Isa.23; Jer.25:22; Jer.47:4; Eze.26:3-7; Eze.28:12-22), and Sodom and Gomorrah were and are a byword for iniquity.

(i) It was the sin of the people who forgot the responsibilities of privilege. To the cities of Galilee had been given a privilege which had never come to Tyre and Sidon, or to Sodom and Gomorrah, for the cities of Galilee had actually seen and heard Jesus. We cannot condemn a man who never had the chance to know any better; but if a man who has had every chance to know the right does the wrong, then he does stand condemned. We do not condemn a child for that for which we would condemn an adult; we would not condemn a savage for conduct which we would condemn in a civilized man; we do not expect the person brought up in the handicaps of a city slum to live the life of a person brought up in a good and comfortable home. The greater our privileges have been, the greater is our condemnation if we fail to shoulder the responsibilities and accept the obligations which these privileges bring with them.

(ii) It was the sin of indifference. These cities did not attack Jesus Christ; they did not drive him from their gates; they did not seek to crucify him; they simply disregarded him. Neglect can kill as much as persecution can. An author writes a book; it is sent out for review; some reviewers may praise it, others may damn it; it does not matter so long as it is noticed; the one thing which will kill a book stone dead is if it is never noticed at all for either praise or blame.

An artist drew a picture of Christ standing on one of London’s famous bridges. He is holding out his hands in appeal to the crowds, and they are drifting past without a second look; only one girl, a nurse, gives him any response. Here we have the modern situation in so many countries today. There is no hostility to Christianity; there is no desire to destroy it; there is blank indifference. Christ is relegated to the ranks of those who do not matter. Indifference, too, is a sin, and the worst of all, for indifference kills.

It does not burn a religion to death; it freezes it to death. It does not behead it; it slowly suffocates the life out of it.

(iii) And so we are face to face with one great threatening truth–it is also a sin to do nothing. There are sins of action, sins of deed; but there is also a sin of inaction, and of absence of deeds. The sin of Chorazin, of Bethsaida, and of Capernaum was the sin of doing nothing. Many a man’s defence is: “But I never did anything.” That defence may be in fact his condemnation.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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