By Herb Montgomery
"Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then “‘they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!”’ For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23.28–31)
We’ve reached the eighth and final prophecy of the last eight prophecies of Christ in Luke’s version of the Jesus story. We will be returning to the fifth prophecy in Luke 27 for the ninth and final part of this series, but this week we are looking at Jesus’ words to the women weeping for him on his bloody march to Golgotha.
Jesus was just moments away from being crucified. Luke tells us that “a large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him.” (Luke 23.27) It is difficult to discern whether these women were sincerely weeping for Jesus and Jerusalem’s rejection of him or because of the dashing of their hopes that this Jesus would be their Messiah. Days earlier this same crowd had ushered Jesus into Jerusalem. There is much that is missed in the details of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem by today’s Christians who still trust in militaristic saviors in our current global climate. Here Jesus is borrowing imagery used by Rome itself. It must be remembered that Caesar himself was referred to as the “son of God.” He was called “the savior of the world.” It was through the victories of Rome (i.e., Caesar) that the political propaganda of Jesus’ day proclaimed that “peace on earth” would come. It was called the Pax Romana, the “peace of Rome.” When Caesar would approach a city within the Roman Empire, emissaries from the city would go out to meet the dignitary and escort him on his way into their city. They would welcome Caesar and the “peace” that Roman occupation brought to their lives.
At a bare minimum, the fact that Jesus used the image of taking honor thought to be due only to the “Lord” Caesar would have been interpreted as a threat to Rome and could have been met with swift retribution. This is why “some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’” (Luke 19.39) They did not wish to bring on themselves the same retribution Caesar had recently exercised against the Galilean insurrectionists. (See Part 3.) As Jesus approached Jerusalem, the crowd was crying out,
“Blessed is the KING who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “PEACE in heaven and glory in the highest!” But what must be noticed first and foremost is how Jesus was turning this imagery on its head. Where Caesar would have been riding a warhorse in his triumphal entry, Jesus came riding on the foal of a colt, a young donkey. Jesus was doing two things here—providing his own nonviolent, enemy-embracing imagery in contrast to Rome’s violent warhorse imagery and pointing those present that day to the words of the prophet Zechariah:
“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your KING comes to you, righteous and having salvation, lowly and riding on a DONKEY, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will TAKE AWAY the CHARIOTS from Ephraim and the WARHORSES from Jerusalem, and the BATTLE BOW will be broken. He will proclaim PEACE to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.” (Zechariah 9.9, emphasis added)
Jesus was trapping his audience once again in a catch-22. To admit that Jesus was their “King,” as Jesus’ fulfillment of Zechariah’s words would indicate, would be to also accept this contrast between the imagery of violence used by Caesar riding a warhorse and the nonviolent Jesus riding a donkey. He was announcing a nonviolent, enemy-embracing “peace” revolution of love and enemy-forgiveness in which the “warhorse,” “war-chariot” and “battle bow” would all be laid down by Jerusalem so that the world could be healed of its violence rather than simply liberating Jerusalem from the Romans and allowing it to become another unstoppable, violent, world-dominating, empire. That was the catch. To embrace Jesus as King was to embrace the path of nonviolence.
When Jerusalem came into view, Jesus stopped and wept. “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you PEACE—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come on 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. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19.42–44, emphasis added.)
We covered this passage in Part 6, but suffice it to say here that this is the same crowd in our prophecy this week, not shouting in joy, but weeping in lamentation. Crucifixion meant defeat. These people did not want to embrace their enemies, to forgive the Romans, or to learn from this prophet of nonviolence how to even love the Romans. No, they wanted a Messiah that would defeat the Romans and liberate Israel. (It should be noted that Rome would, by the fourth century, be defeated by the nonviolent revolution Jesus began, yet this was not the kind of defeat those in Jesus’ day desired.) For a Jewish Messiah to end up on a Roman cross meant that Rome had won. (Little did they realize that in reality Rome’s defeat was just beginning.) Jerusalem had rejected Jesus and his nonviolence in favor of a more militaristic hope of defeating Rome. Thus, Jesus proclaimed to those weeping:
“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ then “‘they will say to the mountains, “fall on us!” And to the hills, “cover us!”’ (Luke 23.28–30)
Jerusalem, rather than learning to love its Roman enemies, would continue on the path of an eye for an eye, retribution, retaliation, and violence against Rome. And what would be the result? That path would end in its annihilation by Rome. Jesus here was quoting the prophet Hosea, who centuries before had spoken those same words referring to the way Israel would be destroyed by Assyria. “The high places of wickedness will be destroyed—it is the sin of Israel. Thorns and thistles will grow up and cover their altars. Then they will say to the mountains, ‘Cover us!’ and to the hills, ‘Fall on us!’ . . . I will come against the wayward people to punish them; and nations shall be gathered against them when they are punished for their double iniquity.” (Hosea 10.8, 10) Jesus applied Hosea’s words to how Jerusalem would be destroyed by Rome.
“As the legions charged in [the Temple], neither persuasion nor threat could check their impetuosity: passion alone was in command . . . Most of the victims were peaceful citizens, weak and unarmed, butchered wherever they were caught. Round the Altar the heap of corpses grew higher and higher, while down the Sanctuary steps poured a river of blood and the bodies of those killed at the top slithered to the bottom . . . Next [the Romans] came to the last surviving colonnade of the outer court. On this women and children and a mixed crowd of citizens had found a refuge—6000 in all. Before Caesar could reach a decision about them or instruct his officers, the soldiers, carried away by their fury, fired the colonnade from below; as a result some flung themselves out of the flames to their death, others perished in the blaze: of that vast number there escaped not one.” Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 359 (6.5.1; 271–76)
This is where the path of violence, of an eye for an eye, of retributive justice, and of retribution ends. Those who live by the sword die by the sword. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind!
Lastly, we come to Jesus’ final sentence to these weepers:
“For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23.31)
Jesus was bringing to their minds the warning given by Ezekiel in the days when Babylonian captivity loomed on the horizon:
“Hear the word of the LORD. This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am about to set fire to you, and it will consume all your trees, both green and dry. The blazing flame will not be quenched, and every face from south to north will be scorched by it. Everyone will see that I the LORD have kindled it; it will not be quenched.” (Ezekiel 20.47)
Jesus clearly was the green tree, bearing the fruit of nonviolent, enemy-embracing love. This was the fruit the Father desired. This was the “will of the Father” that Jesus had referred to so many times. What Jesus is saying here is: “If Rome will do this to me—a prophet of nonviolence, leading a subversive, peaceful revolution—if Rome sees nonviolence noncooperation as a threat, how much more will they do this to Jerusalem when it—a dead tree—chooses the path of violence and insurrection under the headship of a militaristic messiah!” Jesus is proclaiming, “Do not weep for me. No, no! Weep for yourselves because the violent path you have chosen will end in horrifying events that are neither imaginable nor conceivable.”
What does this mean for us today?
The greatest victories of the church were won in its nonviolent days before Constantine. This is how bloody and violent Rome was brought to its knees by pacifistic Jesus-followers. There were no Christian armies, and every true Christian soldier was a martyr. It was martyrs who conquered Rome. Today Christians and non-Christians alike have to rediscover the sources of Christianity. It began, not as a religion, but as a pacifist movement of people placing their hopes in a nonviolent Messiah or Lord, an enemy-forgiving, loving, and embracing revolution and a final resurrection whereby the world would be restored, renewed, and healed. We must come to realize that we have, to a great extent, abandoned the early Christian ideal of peace and nonviolent action.
It is a curious thing that in the twentieth century the one great political figure who made a conscious and systematic use of Jesus’ principles for nonviolent political action was not a Christian but a Hindu. What is more curious is the fact that so many Christians today continue to think of Gandhi as some kind of eccentric whose nonviolence remains impractical, a sensational fad, or at best naïve. What may lie underneath all of this is the reality that we may have to admit that a Hindu, being oppressed by Colonial Christianity wedded to Empire, understood the meaning and intent of the nonviolent Jesus’ teaching more deeply than many post-Constantinian Christians.
Today we, much like Jerusalem in Jesus’ day, still hold to the idea that evil must be met with evil. Today we are faced with the same options Jerusalem had—nonviolence or nonexistence—both in our personal lives as well as in our global lives. According to experts, we live, every day, each moment, only five minutes away from total genocide of the entire human race either through global nuclear war or new developments in ecological science that could inflict irrevocable harm. All along those who claim to follow the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are “straining gnats” while by their silent approval they are “swallowing camels.”
The question is appropriately asked: “How are we today to live at the end of the world?” I’m suggesting we do so by beginning a new one, rooted in the nonviolent teachings of the enemy-embracing, enemy-forgiving, enemy-loving Jesus. Nonviolence, as Jesus taught it, is a steadfast love, in resistance, of those behind technologically advanced violence, behind the massive oppression that causes the masses to continually go hungry, and a global debt crisis that keeps the poor of this planet in slavery to larger and stronger empires. It is to love, in resistance, the conduits of violence in our local communities, our private and public relationships, and even within our families no matter what they do. It is the force of this kind of unrelenting love that can overcome anything.
To live the prayer of desiring Christ’s “Kingdom” to “come . . . on earth as it is in heaven” is to believe in a Kingdom whose coming will cause “swords to be beaten into plowshares.” Or in language that would be more appropriate to our culture today, it is a Kingdom where technologically advanced forms of mass violence will be abolished and the world’s masses will be freed from hunger and the poor freed from oppression.
We will discuss the two prevailing views of how Christ’s Kingdom will come in the final part of this series (Part 9) when we return to Jesus’ words in Luke 17, and I will actually offer a third option. But to believe in Christ’s Kingdom is to believe that a new world will eventually come into existence (one way or another) and to be working toward that end in our daily lives today, not just putting on display what such a world will look like! The Kingdom has come! The Kingdom is at hand! The Kingdom starts now! The Kingdom of God is within your power! All of these words, spoken originally by Jesus, are to be our proclamation to the world. His parting words in Luke were the promise of repentance [metanioa] for the forgiveness of sins” being “preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:47, emphasis added)
We live in that final time that offers humanity the same choice as the final eight prophecies of Jesus about Jerusalem in the book of Luke—the Kingdom or global holocaust. Where do we start? Put this down right now, go into the bathroom, and look in the mirror. It starts right there. As the old adage goes, “As you are, so is the world.” It starts with one person at a time, beginning with today, not with Jerusalem but with each one of us. It starts with me. It starts with you. In our own lives, in our own spheres of influence, wherever this finds us today, will we be followers of the nonviolent, enemy-embracing, enemy-forgiving, enemy-loving Christ? If nonviolence does not begin here, it goes nowhere. The revolution starts now! Look deeply into that mirror, and by the power of God’s Spirit, let a new world begin today!
Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.