Capernaum

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Fr. Daniel C. Kovalak  – July 2015

Welcome to today’s edition of Bible Trivia. From the episode recorded in Matthew 9 pertaining to the healing of a paralytic brought by four friends to Christ, we have five questions.

  1. What was Jesus’ own city?
  2. Christ healed the paralytic because of the faith he saw in what city?
  3. The people of what city glorified God for this miracle?
  4. Now, from Matthew 11, what city does Jesus condemn and compare to Sodom for its lack of faith and repentance?
  5. Finally, what city was named for the Prophet Nahum who preached on God’s judgment against idolatry, oppression, cruelty and wickedness?

The answer to each question is… CAPERNAUM.

Could this be right?!  Did Christ really condemn His own city that served as His headquarters for the bulk of His earthly ministry?! How can this be? And how can it be that some 2000 years later there remains hardly a trace of this city?

This is significant and not trivial at all. The Gospel tells us that, in spite of all the miracles Jesus performed in Capernaum, He was ultimately rejected. His mighty works came to be regarded as insignificant to their faith and inconsequential to their lives. Somewhere along the line, the faith, awe and reverence we see in Matthew 9 disappeared and the city was rebuked by the Lord.

This reality is a stern warning and wake-up call to all who profess Christianity; especially to us as Orthodox Christians who are blessed beyond measure to celebrate Christ’s presence in the life of His Church. If our faith is not continually deepened and enhanced through our worship; if our hearts are not moved; if our souls are not inspired, comforted and encouraged; if our lives are not profoundly influenced by the presence of Our Lord, we stand subject to the same condemnation as Capernaum! “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

The example of Capernaum goes beyond a city. It relates also to the Church. God has abundantly blessed us with the fullness of Holy Tradition—His revelation to mankind, especially in the Person of Jesus Christ. We can’t begin to count the blessings of our Church and express our gratitude in words. We simply and humbly carry on our Sacred Tradition in all its glory and splendor, with faith and repentance. But “unto whom much is given will much be required.”

Historically, Capernaum was religiously grounded, but the city obviously had its share of distractions and entertainments that eventually usurped its faith in God. Nothing new here. In Joshua’s time, Israel found the fire worship of their Chaldean neighbors as exciting as any rock concert; an attractive alternative to the same old boring sacrificial rituals and long prayers to which they’d become accustomed. Such fascination with the sights and sounds of colorful pagan rituals fueled Israel’s inclination to adapt and conform to the conduct of neighboring nations. That’s what happens with distractions.

Today, in our country, where a majority of the population claims an allegiance to Christ, contemporary “Capernaumites” appear to do likewise: become fascinated by and inclined to conform to various distractions.

Recently, a ruling of the United States Supreme Court redefined marriage for American citizens. The highest judicial body of our “land of the free and the home of the brave” determined that individual rights of citizens outweigh the free exercise of religion. The “Opinion of the Court” states, “Indeed, changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations.”  Huh?!

Though some of the legal matters pertaining to marriage have certainly changed over the centuries, the nature of marriage as the union of one man and one woman held historically by people of all cultures and religions has never changed. If the “Opinion of the Court” is true, I shudder to think how “new generations” will move subsequent Courts to further redefine marriage! Put another way, I can equip my 14-year-old Honda with a new engine, sound system, bucket seats and airbags, but it’s still a car. I can’t “redefine” it as a bicycle or a lawn mower!

As ancient Israel settled into the Promised Land, Joshua understood marriage as the key element of holding society together with, among other things, the responsibility of fulfilling the irreplaceable role in reproducing the human race and raising children to do likewise. That’s how Israel survived. We apparently have now reached a point in history where pretty much everything can be redefined by “new generations,” all in the name of freedom, tolerance and individual rights. Can we expect such a society to survive?

These “new dimensions of freedom” are also essentially telling us in the Church that we’re indeed free to exercise our religion within our “worship space,” but in the interest of respecting the freedom and rights of those outside the Church we shouldn’t make any attempt to impose our faith upon, nor try to influence others in any way. In all probability, the Supreme Court of Capernaum decided similarly—against the presence, power, teachings and miracles of the Incarnate God!

How desperately we need to again hear and heed the counsel of the Apostle Peter: “For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:15-16).

After the Apostles miraculously healed a man, they were brought before the Sanhedrin and commanded to stop teaching in Jesus’ name. “But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29). That’s good advice, still utterly relevant. As a matter of fact, it sounds much like Joshua’s final exhortation to Israel: “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15).

Do we as Orthodox Christians have sufficient faith and resolve to identify and address the root problem?  It’s the same problem Capernaum had. The city rejected Christ and was compared to Sodom for its lack of faith and repentance.  Will our Church and our nation share the same fate?

One of the desert fathers tells of a young monk who approached his spiritual father and asked, “How can I be sure I am in the presence of God?”  The elder replied, “You have as much control over this as you have the power to make the sun to rise.”  “Then,” the young monk said, “what is the use of all of our spiritual exercises and prayers?”  The elder responded, “These you do to make sure you are awake when the sun rises.”

When Our Lord returns in glory, Capernaum, and all who willfully reject Christ, will be found sleeping. In spite of countless distractions, we must be awake to God! The Church must be alive, the faith must be vibrant, the Sacred Tradition intact. And so long as we enjoy the constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom we have, we must determinedly and intentionally share these blessings of God with others “for the life of the world and its salvation.”

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