by Fr. Tommy Lane
Unless your faith is firm
you shall not be firm! (Isa 7:9)
So concludes the last verse of our first reading today (Isa 7:1-9). The Lord is telling Ahaz, king of Judah, through the prophet Isaiah not to fear the armies that are attempting to besiege Jerusalem. The Lord is asking Ahaz to trust in God and not give way to fear. Knowing the historical context behind the first reading helps us to understand why, “the heart of the king and heart of the people trembled, as the trees of the forest tremble in the wind” (Isa 7:2) as the reading states. Ahaz had reason to be afraid. The world superpower of the time, Assyria, was spreading its domination west. The northern kingdom of Israel, called Ephraim in the reading, and Syria called Aram in the reading, joined in military alliance to try to dissuade Assyria from attacking them. To make their alliance even more formidable, they wanted Judah under King Ahaz to join them also since there is strength in numbers. Isaiah met Ahaz and proclaimed God’s word to him, “Take care you remain tranquil and do not fear; let not your courage fail before these two stumps of smoldering brands” (Isa 7:4) God promised that those two nations threatening Judah on the north would be stamped out. However, instead of Ahaz remaining at home and praying the Rosary as Isaiah had advised him (that’s the way I paraphrase it for my students), Ahaz did not trust God’s word sent to him through Isaiah and thinking he knew better he sent a tribute to the king of Assyria consisting of silver and gold from the temple and valuables from his own palace. What happened? Assyria marched against Syria and Ephraim so Judah was saved from them but Judah in effect became a vassal of Assyria and unfortunately set up Assyrian idols to maintain friendship with Assyria for saving it from Ephraim and Aram. Had Ahaz listened to Isaiah, Judah would not have been reduced to what was in effect vassal status and there would not have been Assyrian idols in Judah. Ahaz’ disobedience to the word of God brought its own punishment. We can understand why Ahaz was terrified. He was trying to be prudent using human wisdom to protect Jerusalem. But he failed to trust in God which had painful consequences. Faith in God and obedience, even in difficulties, bring blessing while lack of obedience opens one to all sorts of painful outcomes.
Lack of faith is also the issue in the Gospel today (Matt 11:20-24). Jesus reproaches three towns where he had worked many miracles. Jesus pronounced woes against Chorazin and Bethsaida. If Tyre and Sidon had witnessed the great miracles that Jesus did in Chorazin and Bethsaida, they would have repented. We know from elsewhere in the Gospels that Jesus did visit Tyre and Sidon but the only miracle reported in Tyre and Sidon is the cure of the Canaanite woman’s daughter. Nevertheless many from Tyre and Sindon came to hear Jesus preach (e.g. Mark 3:8; Luke 6:17). We don’t have any account in the Gospels of the miracles Jesus performed in Chorazin and Bethsaida but based on what Jesus says in today’s Gospel, they were impressive miracles yet the townspeople did not repent. The third town that is the subject of Jesus’ condemnation is Capernaum where Jesus based himself during his three years of public ministry. Even Sodom would have repented had it witnessed what Jesus did in Capernaum. We know at least some of the miracles that Jesus performed in Capernaum. Jesus cured Peter’s mother-in-law in Capernaum, and all the sick who were brought to him in Peter’s house that evening (Matt 8:14-16). Peter who was from Bethsaida (John 1:44) now lived in Capernaum since it was on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and was an excellent location for his fishing business. We get a glimpse into the rejection Jesus suffered in Capernaum when we read in John 6 that after Jesus concluded his Bread of Life discourse in the synagogue in Capernaum, many of his disciples left him because the talk of eating his flesh and drinking his blood was too much for them (John 6:66). It is worth noting that all three of these towns, Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, are now in ruins. When Jesus pronounces a woe against a town, it has results. Just as in the case of king Ahaz, they lacked faith and these three towns are now in ruins. Faith would have brought them a blessing.
Faced with all the issues that we have to face today, our faith can sometimes be tempted and it would be easy sometimes like Ahaz to let our hearts tremble as the trees of the forest tremble in the wind. However Isaiah urged Ahaz to trust, and we know the Lord has given reassurance to his Church. Ahaz said,
Take care you remain tranquil and do not fear; let not your courage fail before these two stumps of smoldering brands (Isa 7:4)
Jesus promised us that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church (Matt 16:18). He also promised us, “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”(Matt 28:20) One of the ways Jesus is with us is the way he demonstrated his presence to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus when their eyes were opened and they recognized him at the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:31) The Lord has called us and we have responded. We trust in him.
© Fr. Tommy Lane 2018