In the days of Ahaz son of Jotham son of Uzziah, king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel went up to attack Jerusalem, but could not mount an attack against it. When the house of David heard that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim, the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.
Then the Lord said to Isaiah, Go out to meet Ahaz, you and your son Shear-jashub, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller's Field, and say to him, Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and the son of Remaliah.
Because Aram, with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has plotted evil against you, saying, 'Let us go up against Judah and cut off Jerusalem and conquer it for ourselves and make the son of Tabeel king in it;' therefore thus says the Lord God: It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass. For the head of Aram is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. (Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered, no longer a people.) The head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.
Great is the Lord and worthy to be praised
in the city of our God.
His holy mountain rises in beauty,
the joy of all the earth. (R./)
Mount Zion, the recesses of the North,
is the city of the great King.
God is with her castles;
renowned is he as a stronghold. (R./)
For lo! the kings assemble,
they come on together;
They also see, and at once are stunned,
terrified, routed. (R./)
A trembling seized them there;
anguish, like a woman's in labour,
As though a wind from the east
were shattering ships of Tarshish. (R./)
Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent.
"Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you."
The gospel puts in question the purpose of miracles. Both Chorazin and Capernaum witness many miracles, yet the people in those cities at the northwest corner of the Lake of Galilee remained unconvinced by the message of Jesus and he reproaches them with their failure to reform. His miracles were meant to lead to a reformation of lives, turning aside from sinful ways, and showing new concern for the poor and the sick. They were less a display of power than of tender solicitude for people in need, an indicator of Jesus' bond with humanity. Miracles were not intended to catapult him into prominence but to show God's will for us all to form a happy, healthy family.
Today Isaiah ends with a maxim, simple and true, yet overwhelming in all its implications: "Unless your faith is firm, you will not be confirmed." This is leading up to a dramatic challenge for King Ahaz to ask for any kind of sign he wants; and the Immanuel prophecy follows (7:14). Only by faith can people have the strength to remain true to their conscience, trusting in God's effective care of their lives. In this context of faith, as Jesus was to declare, miracles can be worked; but without this faith miracles only harden the heart to find other excuses for not doing what we ought to do.
With his kingdom under invasion, King Ahaz was truly in serious trouble. The hostile powers were intending to replace his dynasty and put another family on the throne. At that precise moment Ahaz had no son to succeed him, for he had sacrificed his only infant son to pagan gods (2 Kings 16:3) and his army could to defeat the invaders. Isaiah urged a moral solution: to do nothing but to put his trust in the Lord. But Ahaz had decided to barter the independence of his people and make the Kingdom of Judah a vassal of Assyria. This would draw them into the international scene of intrigue, warfare and destruction. God would save them only if king and people take the risk of putting their faith in him. Isaiah said to the king, "Be calm and tranquil; do not fear nor lose courage." This disposition of heart was essential for miracles to happen.
We sometimes like to think of ourselves as being in control, as having everything under control. Yet, the reality is that in so many ways we are not in control. So much happens to us over which we have no control. Among other things, we cannot control how people respond to us. We can offer someone the gift of friendship, for example, but we have no control over whether or not they receive that gift. Even Jesus had no control over how other people responded to him. He brought people the gift of God's presence but not everyone received that gift, not everyone recognized Jesus as God visiting his people. In this morning's Gospel, Jesus laments the fact that the towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum did not respond to his presence, in spite of the miracles that were done in their midst. He suggests that the pagan cities of Tyre and Sodom would have been much more responsive to his presence. The fact that people were graced by the Lord did not necessarily mean that they responded to that grace. We have been graced by the Lord in many ways. We have the gift of the Lord's presence in his word, in the sacraments, in each other. We spend our lives learning to respond to the many graces the Lord is always offering us.