The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“Woe to Tolerance”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 11: 20-24
Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. “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. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 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 until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.”
I’ve hunted for years to find the title of a film. It’s a documentary about perspective, lighting in particular, the way lighting can change how we see things. The film follows a photographer trying to get an image of people fishing for an upcoming ad campaign.
You walk with the photographer along a river taking photos and you see the difference light makes, how it washes things out, conceals them in darkness, makes them too harsh. Some of the photos are really good; they were certainly worthy of an ad. But the photographer was not happy. Finally, he rises before dawn and heads back to the river. He spies two fellows in a boat and captures one of them casting.
There is mist rising on the water, the dawn is just starting, and the trees have a golden luminescence. The final photograph is shocking. So much beauty and elegance and truth; he captured it with the right quality of light.
What is true of physical light, sun light or candlelight, is also true of spiritual light. Truth and goodness and beauty each have a light. With physical light we see what is before us; with spiritual light we see what is in us.
Each of us possesses spiritual light. We cast it upon others; we direct this light by what we believe, what we hope, what we love. We can see people in this light. Hence, Jesus often laments: we live in darkness; we have forgotten this light and do not cast it upon others. When belief is fear, when hope is dread, when love is hatred, then we do not cast light but darkness.
Ten years ago, Paul Froese and Christopher Baden studied this phenomenon. They began their study by recognizing a super majority of Americans, 85%. 85% of Americans believe in a loving God. 85% is a rarity in any aspect of a culture, such a super majority. After recognizing this, they asked, are Americans all looking at this loving God the same way?
They asked because we are not a very homogenous group. To confirm or deny a larger continuity, they asked two questions of people: How much does this loving God interact with the world? and, how much does this loving God judge the world?
The answers from this survey created the title to their book, America’s Four Gods. 31% of Americans believe God is very interactive bringing judgment, wrath; 24% believe God is very interactive with us by bringing love and grace and compassion; another 24% believe God is not interactive, but is aware and critical, judgmental; 18% said God is not interactive and is not interested in our sins; God is beyond the mundane details. 5% were atheists who said they cannot answer this.
From these finding, Froese and Baden explored the proclivities of each group: where do they go to church, how were they raised, what sort of education do they have, etc. They illumine how we can all believe in a loving God, read the same Bible, and gather at the same hour each week for prayer, yet be so categorically different. It turns out the light we cast upon God, the bible, and the church changes what we see.
For instance, the teaching of Jesus, often known as “the woes to the cities”, if we take this teaching and read it as those who believe God is very interactive with wrath, then Jesus is giving a kind of warning shot, “there is fire coming.” With this warning shot there is a confidence: punishing Chorzin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum is just and right, what they deserve.
Yet, if we read this teaching of Jesus as the loving, benevolent God, then we may see this as a truly painful moment, a breaking point, where harsh words had to be spoken. But God’s not vengeful, but heartbroken. The woe is not “woe” you evil rotten people. The woe is would “alas, alas, how often I have tried to call you, to love you, and you would just not listen.”
Although it may seem hard to interpret these woes as God not getting involved, this, too, can be done. For the 24% of Americans who believe God is distant, but critical, then Jesus is not getting involved so much as stating the truth about God’s disappointment; the woe here is a judge who reads a sad verdict.
And the last perspective, the Americans who don’t believe in an interactive God and do not believe that God is one who feels and has bad days, then Jesus is just showing the consequence of actions; this is what happens when you ignore justice and mercy: your world falls apart. More of a Godfather moment: nothing personal, only business.
I truly appreciate what Froese and Baden have put together. How we look at God, the light we cast in our beliefs, changes how we live our lives. Not many people I meet are as harsh as those who claim God is punishing people each time there is a natural disaster, like Jerry Falwell did after Katrina saying the folks of New Orleans had it coming with all their sin. We might not go that far, but there is a sense of assurance when someone gets hurt doing something wrong.
And we might not be inclined to see God’s hand at work in moments of good fortune or lucky breaks, but who hasn’t thanked God for the moment of tragedy averted, the hand that pulled us back in the nick of time. I may not believe that God walks around with me all day surveying my every move and offering gentle hugs and whispers of love to inspire me, but I don’t believe God is indifferent about our lives.
Yet, no matter what category of God appeals to you, our reading today should provide a clue as to how you believe in judgment or God’s actions. What light do we cast upon God? We need to remember how our light changes what we see. Like the photographer, our light can conceal or overexpose.
Matthew has his own light as it were. He alone speaks of Sodom and with the reference casts an ominous pall of vengeance. For millennia Sodom has been a by-word for sexual misdeed. To speak of Sodom is to infer that Capernaum is a “den of iniquity.”
And Matthew places these woes directly following the lessons on John the Baptist. It is as if Jesus is now the prophet as John sits in prison; it is as if he must carry the water of doom and gloom now, be the prophet pronouncements wrath.
But if we look at little closer here, if we listen to the lesson without rushing ahead to “just desserts” or “the unfortunate business of judgment” if we look closely, we can see two parts of Jesus’ teaching that break from what we might expect. There are two clues here that take us from the well-worn idea of God punishing the wrong doer and more importantly that people who sin are awaiting a terrible fate.
The closer look starts with what people in the three cities saw. They didn’t see their sin, their wrongdoing. Jesus doesn’t call them sinners or evil or wicked. Most people simply infer that from the reference to Sodom. Jesus says they saw deeds of power. And what are the deeds of power? Deeds of power is what Jesus described for the disciples of John the Baptist: the hungry are fed, the lame walk, the blind see, and the poor hear the good news.
Jesus says this twice, if other cities would have seen these deeds of power, they would have changed. The cities who would have changed, Tyre and Sidon, are Gentile cities. This is the second important piece. By claiming the Gentile cities would have done better, the inference is: our religion is making us blind. Our beliefs, our answers, our certainty, our traditions: we have become blind to those who suffer: to the lame, the hungry, the poor. When Jesus reaches Jerusalem, during the last days of his life, he states this explicitly in his woes to the Pharisees. He will call them blind guides.
How we believe, and what we believe, are the keys to understanding the teaching of Jesus when he says woe to you Chorzin, Bathsaida and Capernaum. Yet, it is not what we believe about God that is important, nor how interactive God is or is not with us, or even if God is judging us. What is important is what we believe about deeds of powerful compassion and what it is meant to do.
The people saw their city in the light Jesus cast upon them; they saw the lame walk; they saw the blind see; they saw the lives of the poor in light of hope. But such a sight did not change them. They did not believe in this light; they were willing to tolerate the darkness.
There is a curious thing about our belief in a loving God. We don’t often speak about this. Jesus doesn’t say God is loving. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke Jesus doesn’t speak of love and God. He does talk about us loving God, that we should love God. But he never says God loves us or is loving or is even mildly fond of us.
When Jesus talks of love, he mostly talks about loving your neighbor as yourself, and even loving the enemy. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus never speaks of God loving us. Such talk of love is in the gospel of John and the letters of Paul. Lot of claims about God loving the earth, or world, and the church, and the believer, and even the amazing claim that God is love. But the Jesus of Matthew, not a word.
In Matthew, the gospel, the good news of the kingdom, is not that God loves us; the good news is that we can change the world if we love one another. That is what Jesus claims the cities didn’t do. They saw the power of loving others heal and bring freedom, and they didn’t follow suit. They didn’t change their ways. They persisted in tolerance. They tolerated the suffering of others and didn’t count it as their own; they tolerated the hungry as a sad fact of life; they tolerated their own blindness. They were shown a different light, the light of compassion and sacrifice and care and they didn’t do likewise.
According to Froese and Baden there are four ways we look at God, the loving God of Paul and John. Some of us see a vengeful God who brings disaster upon the sinners; some of see a compassionate God who gives hugs and is often felt in the “touch of an angel.” There are those of us who look at God as a distant judge who is keeping score for the day of judgment. And some of us see God as far beyond these extensions of ourselves.
It is good to see how we see. Yet, if we are going to follow Jesus, the Jesus who is the son of God in Matthew, we need to change our perspective, leave God out of the equation for just a bit. For Jesus is much more concerned about how we look to each other than how we look to God.
Jesus calls us to love God (once in passing). But mainly he calls us to lay aside the tolerance we have for people’s pain, how little we do to change it, to ease it, to make a sacrifice to heal the suffering of others. The call to love others is his gospel. The gospel is this: If you love others, you change the world. If we cast this light, what we believe, the light of compassion, we can change all things. Amen.
- Ezekiel 3:1 - 11
- Matthew 11:20 - 24