Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
These verses are omitted by our assigned reading. They stand between Jesus’ remark about the fickle response of the people to those God has sent:
18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
and his prayer of thanks:
“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”
The Phoenician city/kingdoms of Tyre and Sidon were not the great military powers that threatened ancient Israel – they were the great cultural and economic powers, wealthy, prestigious, traversing the Mediterranean with the wealth of the nations.
It is Tyre that teaches Jerusalem how to build a proper palace and temple. It is Sidon that forms an alliance with Israel sealed by the marriage of Ahab to the Sidonian princess Jezebel. It is Jezebel who sets out to replace Israel’s archaic faith with a modern, progressive understanding of the gods – the worship of Ba’al, the god of the storm, the source of rain, the bringer of fertility and prosperity and his consort, Ashtoreth (Astarte). It is Jezebel who teaches Ahab about “modern” kingship and the use of power, arranging Naboth’s murder in order to seize his vineyard for a garden.
It is Jezebel who vows to murder Elijah after the great showdown on Mount Carmel that results in the people rising up to slaughter the priests of Ba’al.
Had these cities, symbols of idolatry, seen what the towns of Galilee had seen and heard in Jesus, they would surely have repented – changed their allegiance from gods of wealth and fertility to the LORD who rescues slaves, defends the poor and delivers the needy. They would have embraced the reign of God dawning in Jesus.
It’s a little like saying Wall Street and Washington would become models of piety and compassion, servants of justice and the poor.
Woe to us, how shameful, that we have seen the majesty and mystery of God in this Jesus and do not acknowledge that he is of God, that he speaks the eternal truths, shows the path of our true humanity, and brings to us God’s gifts of healing and life.
There is nothing here or elsewhere in the Scriptures that celebrates ignorance when it critiques “the wise and intelligent”; these words challenge the elites of society whose attachment is to the world they have created rather than to the world God is creating. They may be wise about war and politics and the manipulation of markets; but they are ‘fools’ when it comes to that which is eternal and enduring. Their allegiance is to Rome rather than the New Jerusalem, to their power and privilege rather than the justice and compassion of God.
But some have seen: the poor, the indebted, the enslaved, the wounded, the outcast – the powerless and inconsequential ‘infants’ of the day – they have seen and welcomed the dawning kingdom. And for these who see Jesus gives thanks to God. In the mystery of God’s working, these are the ones who change the world.