Matthew 11:21 (ESV) “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
We were touring the ruins of a fourth century synagogue in Chorazin; one of the cities in Galilee which, along with Bethsaida and Capernaum, was cursed by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel.
Scripture doesn’t say why Jesus curses them, other than that they didn’t repent. But there was one detail in the synagogue ruins that gave me a clue, or at least got me thinking.
Among the ruins were several carved images. Which, from a rigid interpretation of Torah, would be a violation of the Second Commandment. But at least they are images of stories from the Bible. Here’s the spies returning from the Promised Land, with the cluster of grapes between them. Pretty standard VBS stuff.
But then, right next to this pillar, there’s a carving of Medusa.
Hold up. Medusa? Like, Greek mythology Medusa? What’s she doing in a Jewish synagogue? It’s one thing to toe the line of the second commandment with carvings of Bible stories. But Medusa???
I asked our guide Yair about it. Our guide, like many in Israel, is a non-observant Jew. One of his favorite jokes is, “I’m not a dedicated Jew, I’m just kind of Jew…ish”.
Yair’s take on it was, “Well, you know every religion evolves. They incorporate aspects of the culture, So it wasn’t that unusual to see elements of Greek mythology in a synagogue by the fourth century.”
I asked, “So, do you think that might have been part of what Jesus was condemning them for?” Yair didn’t think so at all.
“No, no… Jesus was breaking commandments all the time. Jesus condemned the abuse and oppression of people. He wouldn’t have been bothered by this, I don’t think.”
Which is true…ish.
Jesus did condemn the oppression of people. But the commands He “broke” were the additions and man-made interpretations of the Law, especially regarding the Sabbath, I somehow don’t see Jesus shrugging His shoulders at the image of a false god in a building dedicated to the teaching of Torah. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said,
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17-18)
Now again, we do not know from Scripture why Jesus pronounced a curse on Chorazin. What we saw today was from a couple hundred years after Jesus.
What I do know is how easy it is to chip away at the edges of obedience to God’s commands. Maybe in the synagogue it started with the Bible stories. “Yeah, sure… it’s technically breaking the Second Commandment. But it’s for a good cause. It helps us remember the stories. Where’s the harm, right?”
And then— “Yes, we know Medusa is a pagan figure. But it’s just a symbol. And Simeon is such a talented artist. Wouldn’t it be better to have him put his talents to use in our synagogue? And we just had this very wealthy Hellenistic Jew make a large contribution to the synagogue. We don’t want to offend him, do we?”
It’s easy for the church today to make the same small compromises. We are surrounded by a culture to which we do not belong. We make compromises for the sake of the culture all the time. At what point do we dishonor God’s house by the amount of the world we let in?
Evidence suggests that the synagogue, and most of the rest of Chorazin, was leveled by an earthquake sometime around the fourth century. What was once a thriving city is now a ruin. We shouldn’t be surprised. The words of Jesus are true.
Not just true-ish.