Why woe? (Matthew 11:20-24)

Why did Jesus announce woes on towns like Capernaum?

Open Matthew 11:20-24.

Many of us skip over the bits where Jesus announces woes. We prefer the blessings. But please don’t play ostrich here. It’s important. The bits we don’t understand are friends that can open our eyes to fresh ways of seeing.

Matthew presents Jesus as the Christ, the one anointed by God to be king. Jesus travelled through Galilee announcing the kingdom of God, i.e. God’s reign through him. As evidence of his kingship, God worked through him in acts of power.

Like John the Baptist, many assumed that the Messiah’s acts of power would involve bringing down Rome’s rule so he could establish God’s reign (11:3). But Jesus was not bringing death to their enemies. He was bringing life to his people:

Mt 11 5 The blind see again and the lame are walking,
the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear,
the dead are raised and the poor are getting good news,
6 and blessing is on anyone who doesn’t take offence at me.

Jesus did not invent that list of powerful exploits. Those life-giving phrases are found throughout the prophecy of Isaiah. This was always God’s agenda, so the king proclaims blessing on those who don’t take offence at his kingship.

Jesus honoured John (11:7-15), but he dishonoured Israel’s rulers. He compared them to children wanting to control the game, disapproving of how he implemented his authority (11:16-19).

That led Jesus to launch confrontation with the Galilean communities (implicitly their leaders) for refusing to recognize how heaven’s kingship was functioning through him:

Matthew 11:20-22 (my translation)
20 That’s when he started reprimanding the towns where his acts of power had occurred most, because they had not turned to him.
21 “Woe to you Chorazin! Woe to you Bethsaida! If the acts of power that have occurred in you had occurred in Tyre and Sidon, they would have turned in sackcloth and ash. 22 But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of reckoning than for you.”

At issue here is Jesus’ kingship — the refusal of the Galilean towns to come under his governance. But we miss that point completely. Since we don’t understand the kingdom message, we assume he was talking about individual salvation. We hear repent (final word of verse 20) and think of individuals feeling bad about personal sins. The next word is woe, so we then imagine individuals falling into hell. At that point, twenty-first century readers tend to give up on texts like this and try to find something that makes us feel better. Don’t laugh: it’s true!

Please read what he said. Jesus was speaking not about personal salvation but communal politics. Chorazin and Bethsaida were not individuals, but towns. He called the towns to repent, that is, to change their minds about his leadership. And “woe” is warning that the towns will fare badly if they reject the leader God sent them.

What do you think would have happened to a town if Herod came through and it rejected his leadership? I assure you, that town would have no future!

That’s what Jesus meant by woe, but with one major difference. Herod would use his army to inflict judgement on the rebellious town and burn it down. Jesus doesn’t. He is the earthly representative of the heavenly king, and it is the heavenly king whose judgement the recalcitrant towns would face. Jesus has already explained to his disciples that this is what they must do when rejected (10:14-45). Jesus’ role was to warn the towns that they would have no future under God’s reign if they rejected the one God appointed as king.

To underscore his message, Jesus compares Chorazin and Bethsaida to Tyre and Sidon, Phoenician cities that suffered ruin after being denounced by prophets (e.g. Isaiah 23 and Ezekiel 26–28). If God brought down these foreign towns whose pride prevented them recognizing his authority, what future would the Israelite towns have if they refuse his leadership?

But the main thrust of Jesus’ critique is not Chorazin or Bethsaida — towns not even mentioned elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s Capernaum:

Matthew 11:23-24
23 And you, Capernaum: instead of being elevated up to the heavens, you will sink down into death. If the acts of power that have occurred in you had occurred in Sodom, it would still be here today. 24 But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom on the day of reckoning than for you.

Capernaum was Jesus’ home town during his ministry (4:13). His acts of power helped more people in Capernaum than anywhere else. If the divinely appointed king chose Capernaum as his town, it had the potential to skyrocket in importance! Tragically, Capernaum’s leaders were not about to cede their authority to him.

As you enter Capernaum today, you’re greeted by a mosaic sign declaring it to be “the town of Jesus.” Oh, that they had recognized their king back then!

Powerful and selfish people still find it hard to yield to the one God has appointed to reign over the earth.

What others are saying

Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: SPCK, 2004), 133–134:

These warnings are among the most sober and serious words he ever said. He had lived in Capernaum, after all; he knew the people. They were his friends, his neighbours. The baker where he bought his bread. The people he met in the synagogue. And he knew Chorazin and Bethsaida, just a short walk along the lakeside. And he knew now, despite all the remarkable things he’d done there, that they were bent on going their own way, following their own vision of God’s kingdom. And he knew where that would lead.

Their vision of the kingdom was all about revolution. Swords, spears, surprise attacks; some hurt, some killed, winning in the end. Violence to defeat violence. A holy war against the unholy warriors. Love your neighbour, hate your enemy; if he slaps you on the cheek, or makes you walk a mile with him, stab him with his own dagger. That’s the sort of kingdom-vision they had. And Jesus could see, with the clarity both of the prophet and of sheer common sense, where it would lead. Better be in Sodom and Gomorrah, with fire and brimstone raining from heaven, than fighting God’s battles with the devil’s weapons.

He was offering a last chance to embrace a different kingdom-vision.

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 439:

Capernaum, as the base of Jesus’ operations, has received more of the light (4:16) than the other towns, and so its unresponsiveness deserves a greater condemnation. The comparison with Sodom (cf. 10:15) is therefore even more wounding than that with Tyre and Sidon, since at least the Phoenician cities, though captured by Alexander the Great, were still standing, whereas Sodom was the classic example of total destruction, its remains now buried under the waters of the Dead Sea. Even worse is the unmistakable echo in v. 23 (see above n. 6) of Isaiah’s taunt (Isa 14:13–15) against the ambitions and downfall of the king of Babylon, the traditional enemy and destroyer of Judah.

[previous: Coping with social pressure]

[next: Invitation to rest]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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