Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum

Monday, October 17, 2011 — Week of Proper 24, Year One

Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch and Martyr, c. 115

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 988)

Psalms 25 (morning) // 9, 15 (evening)

Jeremiah 44:1-14

1 Corinthians 15:30-41

Matthew 11:16-24

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! …And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.

Sometimes I’ve wondered how I might have responded had I lived in Galilee during Jesus’ ministry. Would I have paid attention to him and to his movement? Would I have listened and responded?

Had I been a fellow fisherman with Peter, James and John, I probably would have reacted to Jesus in a way that depended entirely of my opinion of his companions. Had the mercurial Peter and the “sons of thunder” ticked me off sometime in the past, I probably would have painted Jesus with their annoying, over-reactive brush. Had I been comfortable and settled, prosperous and blessed, I probably would have been suspicious of the potential for his movement to overturn the status quo. Had I been with the Roman occupiers or one of their Jewish collaborators, I would have judged Jesus from a guarded perspective, dependent upon my own sense of threat or stability.

Had I lived in Chorazin, thought to be a synagogue following the stricter teaching of Rabbi Shammai, I probably would have seen Jesus as a heretic and a threat to good religion. Had I lived in Capernaum, said to be allied to the milder teaching of Rabbi Hillel, I probably would have been more open to Jesus’ message as it seemed compatible with what I would have grown up with.

I don’t know whether I would have recognized and appreciated the opportunity to see him face to face, to know him personally, had I had the good fortune to live in one of the towns where he taught. I might have just been too busy to pay attention, too preoccupied with my own affairs. I might have been too embarrassed to risk association with one whose reputation was so mixed. I might have been too dull of spirit to recognize how this teacher was different. (I’m still haunted that I didn’t hound my parents, like some of my friends did, to let me go to the Beatles concert in 1964. I didn’t sense, as some of them did, what a big deal it was.)

Our context shapes so much of our character, opinions, vision, and potential. It limits and it opens possibilities to us.

The people of Tyre and Sidon did not have the same opportunities of those in Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum — to hear and respond to the ministry of Jesus. Jesus tells his Galilean neighbors that the foreigners would have responded more energetically.

Sometimes I wonder how much of my response to Jesus is cultural because I have been raised in an Episcopalian home, and how much is my own heartfelt and creative embrace of his being. I’m sure that if I were raised in Islamabad, I would be a Muslim today. I imagine I would be a Muslim there in something of the same manner that I am a Christian here.

I feel fortunate to have grown up in the environment that raised me. But I wonder what I haven’t seen and known simply because of my own cultural blindness. I wonder if other people from other cultures, if given my opportunities, might do much more and be far more faithful than I have been.

I’m always bothered by proud expressions of American exceptionalism, phrases like “the United States is the greatest country in the world; America is Number 1.” Yes, we have been given so much — natural resources, the protection of two oceans, a heritage of liberty. But I wonder, if some other tribe or people had been given these gifts, might they have done better with them than we have? I know there are cultures where people take care of each other and mitigate suffering with a profound sense of communal obligation. I wonder if our ancestors had been from some of those cultures, would we be a more just and loving nation?

Elsewhere, in Luke, we hear Jesus say, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Luke 12:48b)

Jesus says to his listeners, “Just because you’re from Capernaum and enjoyed my synagogue teaching doesn’t mean you’re more virtuous than the ancient people of Sodom.” That message has teeth for us too.

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