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“Do not weep for me, weep for yourselves…” (Luke 23:28)

A reflection for the last in a series of Morning Prayer services during Lent 2019: “Lament and the Kingdom of God”, at Church Hill Anglican, York St, Sydney, by Lionel Windsor, Moore College, Sydney.

As you walk into the ruins of the ancient Roman Forum, there is a famous imposing stone arch: The Arch of Titus. This Arch was built in AD 82 to commemorate the victories of Titus, including the AD 70 siege of Jerusalem which ended in the destruction of the Temple and the end of the political nation. On the inside of the Arch is a relief showing the spoils taken from the ruined and sacked Jerusalem Temple: the golden candelabrum, the trumpets, pans, the table. For the Roman conquerors, this Arch told a story of victory, power, human achievement and progress. Yet for the Jewish people, the Arch was, and remains to this day, a symbol of lament and mourning.

Image of the capture of Jerusalem, Arch of Titus, Roman Forum, Rome, Italy

When late last year I myself saw the Arch of Titus, tears came to my own eyes. Why did I weep? I’m not Jewish, and yet I wept. I wept out of sympathy for my own Jewish friends. I wept for the Israel I know so well from the Old Testament, God’s own special people whom he loved. But there was something more: I also wept for myself. Because this tragedy of the fall of Jerusalem is also my own tragedy.

For whom do we weep?

Lent is a time for lament. But why do we lament? Why do we weep? To ask the question another way: For whom do we weep? Sometimes we lament out of sympathy, as we see the tragedies of others and grieve over others. Or we lament the brokenness of the world around us. This is good and right. But there is another, more personal kind of lament: when we weep for ourselves. When we face tragedies that directly touch on and cause deep pain in our own lives. This is the kind of lament that Jesus calls for in this episode from his Passion:

do not weep for me; weep for yourselves.

Luke 23:28

The scene is a mourning procession. Jesus is here heading to his crucifixion: a shameful death under Roman rule for a foreign Jewish criminal. And as was the common practice, crowds are following the condemned man, lamenting, weeping and mourning. Who is lamenting here? It is the people, the people of Israel, God’s people. But there is a focus: it is the women of Israel, lamenting and mourning Jesus as he goes to his crucifixion. Why are they lamenting? They are feeling the injustice, perhaps: the injustice to Jesus, or the injustice of an oppressive foreign Roman power shaming one of their own kinsmen. They must also be feeling the sheer human tragedy of a man condemned to death. And so they are weeping out of sympathy for Jesus.

Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me

But here Jesus turns to speak to them:

Daughters of Jerusalem…

Luke 23:28

he calls them. “Daughters”: that’s a kind word, a word of affection from Jesus. And yet “daughters of Jerusalem” has other echoes. Jesus is addressing them, not simply as sympathetic mourners, but as representatives of the people of Israel, just as the prophet Isaiah named the “daughters of Zion”, the daughters of the people of Judah. People, in Isaiah’s time, whose rebellion and sin had placed them under God’s judgment. And Jesus says to these daughters,

…do not weep for me…

Luke 23:28

Why not weep for Jesus? Jesus is facing a painful and tragic death. Surely he deserves our sympathy? And yet if we simply weep for Jesus in his passion—if we simply weep out of sympathy—we have missed something vital. Because Jesus’ death is greater than a personal tragedy for him. Jesus is not a passive victim here. In his death, Jesus is deliberately entering into and facing the judgment of God. The judgment that rightly comes against God’s people for their sin.

Weep for yourselves

And so, says Jesus,

Weep for yourselves and for your children

Luke 23:28

Jesus is asking them to enter into his weeping for them. Jesus often wept over Jerusalem. Earlier in the Gospel, Luke records these words from Jesus:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you,…

Luke 13:34

The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls.

Luke 19:43–44

How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! … Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

Luke 21:23–24

Jesus himself wept for the upcoming fall of Jerusalem to the Romans. Yet this military conquest, as awful as it is, is only a sign, a sign of something far more terrible: God’s judgment against his people, the judgment that Jesus is now taking upon himself as he goes to the cross.

Days are coming

And so, says Jesus,

Days are coming

Luke 23:29

That prophetic formula signals the future judgment of God: a judgment that turns the world upside-down. It’s a time when they will say,

Blessed are the childless women

Luke 23:29

which is a heartbreakingly sad reversal of God’s pattern of blessing. Children are meant to be a joy and blessing. And yet, when the days are so evil and life so unbearable, it will be better not to bring children into the world at all.

And even worse, this horrible blessing signals the shattering of Israel’s divine role in the world. For Israel, the bearing of children was meant to be a blessing to the world. As God said to Abraham and Sarah:

I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.

Genesis 22:17

Israel’s role was to be great and powerful and good, to win over their enemies, and be a blessing to the world. But here, the blessing is reversed. Israel has sinned. And when the judgment comes, the blessing on childbearing is horribly reversed.

And so

they will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’”

Luke 23:30

This is apocalyptic. Even death is better than the suffering that will come in this judgment. So, says Jesus, weep for yourselves and your children. Because the judgment is coming.

Mercy

Cranmer’s words in the Holy Communion Service [1662] reflect this command, don’t they?

Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness,… The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us.

Book of Common Prayer, Service of Holy Communion

“Have mercy upon us”. For it is in weeping and lament, that we find mercy. And hope. This judgment of God, this righteous judgment for our sins, is the reason Jesus is in fact now going to his death.

The sins of Israel and the judgment of Israel aren’t theirs alone, are they? Their tragedy is our tragedy, because they, like us, are human. For the daughters of Jerusalem, and the sons of Jerusalem, are just like us, the daughters and sons of Adam and of Eve. Their rebellion is our rebellion, and their judgment is a sign of our own judgment.

Yet Jesus has entered into our sinful and rebellious state. Jesus weeps over us too, and calls us to weep with him. Jesus is going to his death to deal with and put an end to this very judgment of God.

In lament, salvation

That’s why it is in lament that we find salvation. In the very next scene, two criminals are crucified next to Jesus. The first criminal looks at the crucified one, and sees only defeat. For him, Jesus is a weak, pitiable pretender, a failed Messiah, conquered by the Romans, useless to save anyone. The criminal mockingly calls on Jesus to rise up and show his power.

But the second criminal looks at the crucified one, and laments his sin and the judgment that has come to him:

We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.

Luke 23:41

The criminal sees that here on the cross, Jesus is in fact showing his power, and he calls on him for mercy:

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Luke 23:42

In lament, is our salvation. We don’t bypass lament, do we? We go through it. Not just lamenting the circumstances or the brokenness of those around us, but lamenting our sin and the judgment of God. And as we enter into Jesus’ own lament over Jerusalem’s sin and judgment. As we identify with it as the state of us all, we see the way to salvation.

Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise

Luke 23:43
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