Jesus cries out laments against the Jewish cities most exposed to his miracles; none are known to have been particularly hostile to Jesus, but their reception was not close to commensurate with their opportunity. Following the ancient Near Eastern practice of judgment oracles against other nations, prophets like Isaiah (13-23), Jeremiah (46-51), Ezekiel (25-32) and Amos (1:3-2:3) denounced the sins of various nations in succession. Like the biblical prophets, however, Jesus also prophesies woes against those who claim to be God's people (as in Is 22; Jer 2-11; Ezek 24; Amos 2:4-3:8; Mic 1:9-15). Like the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14:14-15, Capernaum thought highly of itself, but Jesus teaches that people's response to himself and his message will determine their standing at the coming judgment (Witherington 1990:167).
This narrative warns that God judges peoples according to the opportunities they have had to respond to his truth. This is not to say that anyone is without some light and therefore escapes punishment, but to say that those who know best-in our day perhaps those who grow up in loving Christian homes-yet reject the truth will be punished most severely (Lk 12:47-48; Rom 2:12-16; 12:19-20; Rev 9:20-21). Those who claim to be God's people are often the most hardhearted hearers of all (see comment on Mt 2:1-12). Tyre, Sidon and Sodom would have repented, but God's people took the signs for granted (compare 2:4-11).
God often judges corporately for corporate sin. Sometimes large groups of people lead others to starve or slaughter opponents in war; those who profit from or approve of the sins of their allies will suffer judgment along with the actual perpetrators of the acts. Sometimes entire cities or nations withhold God's truth from their children, perpetuating a hardness against God for generation after generation. In such cases, judgment may be God's primary means of gaining the people's attention (as in Ex 7:5, 17; 9:14; 10:2; Is 26:9-10; 28:9-13; 29:9-14).
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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