In a report by Luke and Matthew, and skipped by the Elves in both instances, Jesus condemns cities in Galilee for not changing their ways after he had performed miracles: “Damn you, Chorazin! Damn you, Bethsaida! . . . And you, Capernaum . . . you’ll go to Hell. . . .” Matthew’s Jesus promises that those cities will be overturned, just like Sodom and Gomorrah, “Because if the miracles had been done in Tyre and Sidon they would have sat in sackcloth and ashes and changed their ways long ago,” like the ancient gentile Ninevites in the satrical story of the prophet Jonah.
The Jesus Seminar scholars were “almost unanimous in their opinion that [these oracles of condemnation] were created by a later Christian prophet in Galilee speaking in the spirit and the name of Jesus . . . These condemnations probably reflect the frustration of Christian prophets following the failure of missions . . . .” The Five Gospels, p. 181. But suppose we take them at face value? What is Matthew’s Jesus suggesting?
First, what must be remembered is that “changing their ways” is not about petty sin, or sexual misconduct, nor is it about believing a story about someone who came back from the dead. As always, “changing their ways” means turning around and recommitting to God’s covenant of distributive justice-compassion. Second,
As pointed out in the commentary for Year A, proper 20, “. . . The joke – which Jonah resented, Jesus knew, and Paul realized – is that the Covenant includes everybody and anybody who is willing to sign on. Jonah only went to Ninevah after his journey into death in the belly of the fish. But Jonah didn’t die – he held onto his pious convention like a three-year-old. He would rather hold his breath until he turns blue than acknowledge that God cares more about saving 120,000 sinners from injustice than one recalcitrant, self-righteous prophet. ” Liberal Christian Commentary, 3 Epiphany, Year B.
“Sodom and Gomorrah” are cultural buzzwords for homosexual sin. Such a gloss prevents any creative imagination of what even the false Jesus quoted by Matthew and Luke may have been referring to. The fact is, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is never preached on by followers of the lectionary, is not about sex. It is about radical hospitality.
The two angels sent by God to search out ten righteous men arrive in Sodom in the evening. Lot sees them, greets them with respect, and invites them into his house to wash their feet and spend the night. The angels decline, saying they will be fine spending the night in the village square. But Lot insists. They come into his house, and Lot prepares a feast. But then, before they retire for the night, the men of the city surround Lot’s house and demand that he throw the guests out so that the men can “know them.” The intent of the village men is clear. When Lot reminds them that the visitors have “come under the shelter of my roof” and offers them his daughters instead, the men of the village are outraged.
But they are not outraged because of the offer of the daughters. That is a historical-cultural artifact that turns the story into a feminist “text of terror,” and can easily distract 21st century minds from the point. The men of Sodom are outraged because “this fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge!” In other words, the outsider has the nerve to shame the insiders for their failure to offer safe haven to the strangers. The angels warn Lot that because of this sin – this failure of the men of Sodom to follow the most basic rule for human survival – God is going to destroy the city. Lot had better leave with the angels and bring along sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone else that belongs to him.
The ancient rule of hospitality was broken at the risk not only of shame, but of one’s own future security. In a world dependent upon the most primitive of communications, once the word was out that your tribal lands or your household did not honor the rule, you could find yourself denied assistance or shelter. Post-modern minds have drifted away from hospitality as a radical expression of distributive justice-compassion, where the stranger is given shelter – even feasted and entertained – for a night, with no questions asked. Hospitality is reciprocal: If I receive hospitality from your tribe on my journey, you may also expect hospitality from me on your journey. That reciprocity is also immediate: If I receive your welcome, you may be confident that I will not take advantage of you. In its purest form, hospitality becomes radical. The identity of host and guest is interchangeable.
Suppose the “sin” of those condemned cities in old Galilee was not that they refused to believe Jesus was the Messiah, but that they betrayed the requirements of hospitality and sold out to Rome. When was the last time radical, reciprocal hospitality was practiced by the kingdoms of Arabia, or the government of the United States, or Big Oil, Big Pharma, or Wal-Mart? (Wal-Mart’s outrageous contempt for the rights of women for equal pay is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, not for the merits of the original complaint, but for the right of workers to collective class action.)
Whenever a municipality, a county, or a state exempts a corporation from paying the very taxes that would “increase the tax base” and thereby bring prosperity, the expectation of distributive justice is denied. The community’s leaders have sold out to Rome. “Increasing the tax base” no longer means that corporations are sharing their wealth for the benefit of the community. The tax base is “increased” because the jobs provided raise the income levels of local citizens so they can pay more taxes, and increase the profitability of the corporations by buying their products.
The collective sin becomes inescapable. Can individual citizens be held accountable for “selling out to Rome” whenever they buy into promises made by politicians who are in office because of kick-backs from tax exemptions granted to corporations? Is it really fair to blame citizens for not voting when they can barely read and write because funding for public education is becoming an artifact of history? Should local health care providers refuse to treat patients who cannot pay because it would adversely affect the bottom line of the corporation that owns them?
In the next verses (11:25-30) Matthew’s Jesus claims exclusive knowledge for those on the inside, who – like Jesus – are meek, modest, and “untutored.” The Jesus Seminar scholars are clear that the historical Jesus would never have made such claims, although he did have some unflattering things to say about religious leaders who broke the covenant with God and collaborated with the Romans. These sayings reflect more about common cultural notions about hidden knowledge, available only to those who know the secret password, who received it in a kind of divine communication network from God to prophet to disciple. Would-be transformers of culture, in the face of failure, claim in desperation that if the people don’t get it, it’s because God doesn’t want them to get it: “No one knows the son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the son – and anyone to whom the son wishes to reveal him.” Here is the justification for the heresy of exclusion that has kept the planet in crusading turmoil for two thousand years.
Maybe, like the ancient frustrated prophets, the “secret knowledge” is found by being willing to look beyond the conventions that normal civilization lives by. Poor ol’ Jonah. His idea of “justice” was retributive; his expectation of the pagans in Ninevah was that they would soon revert to their ungodly ways, and all of his tribulation in the belly of the fish and the calling to repentance of Ninevah would have been a waste of time. God was more interested in the sea captain’s concern for the safety of his ship (remember, he threw Jonah into the drink after Jonah confessed he was trying to escape God’s command) and the Ninevite king’s concern for the safety of his people than in Jonah’s pious judgment, or Jonah’s anger over his own discomfort as he sits in the sun waiting for the Ninevites to renege on their acceptance of God’s covenant. God is even impressed with the animals in sackcloth who joined in solidarity with the people.
The secret is, God’s covenantal justice is distributive. No being in the great matrix of the universe is left out. Matthew’s Jesus didn’t get it either.