April 19, 2019

Luke 22:14 – 23:56

“Do Not Weep for Me”

Jesus proclaimed, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

On this Good Friday, our worship invites us to walk in the way of the cross with Jesus. We tell the story of his passion and reflect on his journey in order that we may know what it means to be his disciples, to take up the cross, and to follow in his faithful footsteps.

Today we acknowledge that the way of the cross is very difficult for us, and we often stumble and fall. But as we heard in the Gospel reading, even from the cross, the one who was obedient even to death proclaimed a message of love and acceptance. Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

We do not always know what we are doing, but year after year we, the followers of Jesus, walk the way of the cross so that we can learn what we must do. We make the walk so that we will be able to pick up our cross and be faithful to the God who loves us into eternal life.

There is much to learn from the Gospel story along the way…

  • As his disciples, we must stop arguing about who is the greatest, and learn to serve one another instead.
  • Yes, there will be times of trial, but God will strengthen us to endure them without turning to violence.
  • Even the best of us will fail with our denials and our betrayals, but Jesus’ forgiving love will never fail us.
  • When, like the criminal on the cross, we turn to him again, we will be assured of the gift of eternal life – not earned, but gifted by God’s grace.

But the part that I want to reflect on today is the moment when Jesus pauses on the way to the cross to speak to the women of Jerusalem who are weeping and wailing in the street.

As Jesus walked along, the author of Luke’s Gospel tells us that “A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him.”

This part of the story is unique to Luke’s Gospel. The others don’t mention these crowds following him, seemingly upset with the fact that he has been arrested and will be killed.

Usually we talk about how everyone betrayed or denied Jesus. Those who had praised him with “Hosannas” a few days before, now change their tune and call for his death. Certainly, those who wished to be rid of Jesus had rallied a crowd in support of seeking execution by Rome, but Luke’s account suggests that Jewish opinion was split.

The women gathering to bemoan execution was something of a public ritual in that culture. But Luke indicates there was a “multitude” of common Jews who identified with Jesus’ movement or lamented his unjust sufferings. Likely some were followers of Jesus who had joined the “Palm Sunday” hosannas just a few days earlier.

Then we come to verses 28-31 and three linked prophecies of doom that Jesus addresses to the women. He says: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

These are strange and confusing things to say, aren’t they? What did Jesus mean by them?

Christian tradition says that Jesus was looking towards the destruction of Jerusalem that would occur one generation later. Certainly, when the Gospel of Luke was being put together later in the century, the Christians who first read it would have continued to see great and unjust suffering in Jerusalem and elsewhere.

But whether Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem or not, he surely knew that his torture and death would not be the worst or the last of the suffering for God’s beloved children. And he tells the women of the city not to weep for him, but for themselves, and for their children. Perhaps for all who suffer unjustly because of human sin, human arrogance, human fear, human violence.

Jesus laments that things are going to get worse – so terrible that he reverses the Old Testament depiction of childlessness as a curse and turns it into a blessing. It would be better NOT to have children because their lives will be very difficult. I’ve heard that idea from some people living in our world today.

Jesus’ second statement quotes an expression of despair from the Prophet Hosea: “They shall say to the mountains, ‘Cover us’ and to the hills, ‘Fall upon us.’” This portrays people desperately crying for mountains and hills to provide shelter, just as in Isaiah 2:19 they scramble for protection into caverns and hollows in the ground. A related but grimmer interpretation of Hosea is people longing for an earthquake or other natural cataclysm so death will end their misery. Certainly, Jesus is lamenting a time of great suffering for many people.

Then there is the third statement, and this one is a quote from the Prophet Ezekiel: “Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree; the blazing flame shall not be quenched.”

Biblical scholars explain that Jesus referred to himself as the green tree (or the green wood) that is not easily consumed by fire, and he referred to Jerusalem as the dangerously flammable dry wood. The meaning was that if the innocent Jesus was not spared, then guilty Jerusalem was at far greater risk of destruction.

Or, perhaps Jesus meant to say that if he (the green wood) the perfectly loving, kind, gentle, good one could be rejected, tortured, and killed unjustly because of human sin, how much more might we (the dry trees) with all our faults and failings and struggles, be vulnerable to hurt and kill one another too.

On Good Friday, we walk with Jesus on the way to the cross, and we weep for him. As we remember the story of his rejection, torture, and death, our hearts break because such atrocities were done to him, and they break again when we acknowledge that we would have done them too, if we had been there.

But very often, on Good Friday, Christian communities also pause to reflect on and pray about people in our world today who continue to suffer. We remember the poor, the oppressed, those discriminated against, and people who suffer violence. We remember that whatever we have done to the least of these, we have done also to Jesus… whether we have stood up for them and spoken out, whether we have turned away and ignored them.

Today, Jesus says to us: “Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” Weep for the suffering ones in our world today, for those desperately looking for shelter, for those struggling so much that they are praying for the end, for those so thirsty for their basic needs to be met that they are like dry and vulnerable trees.

This morning I have the people of Malawi on my mind and in my heart, and some of my tears are for them. Although the news cycle has gone past their struggle from the impacts of Hurricane Idai, we received an update yesterday from Presbyterian Church in Canada missionaries living and working in the area. And they continue to have heart-breaking realities that they are grappling with:

  • A mother of three who is in a polygamous marriage and whose house collapsed in the floods. She is not the favoured wife and now sleeps on the porch of her husband’s preferred wife’s house and hopes that he will distribute some of the food aid to her and their three children.
  • A father who claims he was denied food aid previously because of his political party affiliation. His neighbours received food but his family did not because he didn’t support a certain political party.
  • A 12-year-old girl who is the head of her four-member family. Her house washed away and so she stays with an aunt. The aunt does not come to receive aid, indicating that the girl is left largely to her own devices to care for her three siblings.
  • The translator who must halt the proceedings because the stories are too painful, too much like his own childhood. When person after person comes to describe their hunger pains and weakness it eventually becomes too much. He remembers being a child and suffering the very same pains.

As we weep for them and for others who are suffering today, may our weeping turn to caring, and may our caring turn to action, and may our action turn to healing and reconciliation and hope. For after the weeping and the suffering and the death of Jesus there is silence for a time… and then Sunday comes.