There is a curious passage in Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus rebukes several cities. “Woe unto you, Chorazin!” he said, repeating the same for nearby Bethsaida and Capernaum (11.21, 23).
Why? Because Jesus had performed miracles in each city and they ignored the wonders. They observed the miracles and did not repent. They failed to respond as they should have.
But can we blame them?
Right after upbraiding these cities, Jesus thanked God for hiding “these things from the wise and understanding . . . for such was thy gracious will” (vv. 25-26). How can these cities be responsible for not responding if God denied them understanding?
It’s really the same question that arises from the Exodus. Repeatedly we hear that Pharaoh hardened his heart. But we also hear that God hardened his heart. How can Pharaoh be responsible for his actions when God prevented him from showing mercy to the Israelites?
I think the answer lies in an opening passage of Romans. “[T]he wrath of God,” said Paul, “is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (1.18). God can be “clearly perceived” in his creation (v. 19), but according to Paul, we’ve pushed that perception out of our consciousness.
What we have in the case of the three cities and Pharaoh is not a case of God judging for what God has made impossible. Rather, his denial of revelation is simply confirmation that they’ve rejected the truth that was already available to them. God did not stack the deck against them. He confirmed the already-existing state of affairs — that they had denied the truth and wanted nothing to do with God.
Jesus gave us another angle from which to view this problem a bit later in Matthew. After Christ told the Parable of the Sower, the disciples asked him why he wouldn’t give it to his listeners straight. Why all these opaque stories?
“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given,” Jesus answered. “For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (13.11-12).
The curse of the cities manifests the drama of this dynamic. The three cities have little, and what little they have is being taken away. Meanwhile, the disciples have much and so to them more is given.
Why do they have little? Because, as Jesus quoted Isaiah, “For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed. . .” (v. 15) This is just another way of saying what Paul said — only perhaps more so because, as Paul also said, the Jews had extra revelation from God.
They had closed their eyes to the revelation that was offered. What right do they (or we) have to complain for God’s refusal to grant them more?