There is a text in Luke’s Gospel that I meant to cover back in Holy Week but things slipped by. It is a rather extraordinary thing that Jesus said on his way to the cross. He said it to women who had gathered to lament him:
Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children, for indeed, the days are coming when people will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.’ At that time people will say to the mountains, ‘Fall upon us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’ for if these things are done when the wood is green what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:28-31)
The text is really quite astonishing for, as awful as the crucifixion was, as mightily sinful as it was for us to kill the Lord, as terrible as this moment is, Jesus says something worse is coming, something more awful. What was Jesus talking about and is it a prophecy for our times?
With any Biblical text it seem opportune to ask three questions: What did it mean then?, what does it mean now?, and What does it mean for me? Too often today an almost exclusive emphasis is placed on the historical meaning of a text. While this is interesting it is also important to apply the text to our own times and to apply it personally. This is usually the goal of good preaching. So let’s look at this text with all three perspectives in mind.
1. What did it mean then?– Jesus had often spoken of a great destruction soon to come upon Jerusalem for her lack of belief. He did this primarily in the Mount Olivet Discourse which is recorded in the Synoptic Gospels (Mt 24:1-51; Mk 13:1-37; Lk 21:5-36). Jerusalem would be surrounded by armies, nation would rise against nation, the temple would be destroyed and there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again (Mat 24:21). While many confuse this discourse as referring to the end of the world, Jesus is clear at the beginning of the discourse that he is referring to the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem that in fact took place in 70 AD (cf Matt 24:2-4; Mark 13:2-5; Luk 21:5-7). In many ways the Jewish War with the Romans was one of the bloodiest and most awful wars ever fought. Josephus indicates that 1.2 million Jews lost their lives in this devastating war. Jerusalem was destroyed and the Temple was thrown down, never to be rebuilt.
Thus, historically Jesus seems to be saying to the women, “Women of Jerusalem though you weep for me in my suffering be aware that something far worse will come upon you and your children. It will be so awful that people will actually call those who died blessed and those who never existed lucky. It will be so awful that people will long for death. He then refers to green wood and dry wood, an expression that basically means, “If I who am innocent among you meet this fate of crucifixion what will be in store for the guilty?” Hence what it meant then was that Jesus summoned the women to prayer, a deep and mournful prayer, that would call people to conversion. Otherwise difficult days were ahead.
2. What does it mean now?– Jesus spoke not only to his times but to ages yet unborn and to our own age. And perhaps as no other age, his words fit our times like a glove. For indeed these are times where many say, Blessed are the wombs that have born no children. Blessed are the wombs that bear fewer children. Blessed are those who contracept, blessed are the surgically sterile. In other words, Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore, the breast that never nursed. Throughout the Western world birth rates have plummeted and are dangerously low in many countries. Some Western Christian nations and societies are contracepting and aborting themselves toward a point of no return. Years of fear mongering about overpopulation, extolling of contraception and preferring the single life to marriage and family has led to a dramatic shift in the attitudes of many westerners toward children who are now seen as a burden more than a blessing. Sterility and barrenness were considered a terrible curse in biblical times and until very recently. But, in what Pope John Paul II termed a “culture of death” many in the West have come to say “Blessed are the barren.” And although nations like Germany, France and Italy are begging their citizens to have more children and providing tax incentives it seems that most Western Christians can’t be bothered with things like marriage and family.
And not only this but many in the radical environmentalist movements see humankind as a great scourge on this planet and would prefer that “the mountains fall on us and the hills cover us.” There are bumper stickers that say, “Earth First” and History Channel shows that fantasize about “Life after Humans” (actually a rather creative show).
Hence, in looking forward to our times, perhaps Jesus’ words to the women would be: “Women of Jerusalem, do not weep for me but weep for your descendants. For the days are coming when people will actually say blessed are the barren. The days are actually coming when people will prefer not to have children or to have as few as possible. The days are actually coming when expectant children will be aborted and the capacity to do this will be called a right, where women with difficult situations will be taken to abortionists and those who bring them will think they are doing something good. The days are actually coming when depression, self-loathing, lack of hope and misplaced priorities will so consume your descendants that they will prefer non-existence to existence, where death will become a kind of “therapy” through abortion, euthanasia, contraception, and stem cell research. Yes, dear women, prayerful weeping may be salutary to push off these grievous times for as long as possible. But the days are coming when these things shall come to pass. For if you think things are bad now when the wood is green, what shall happen when the wood becomes dry?”
You may think my word picture a bit extreme. But what I am trying to capture is the stunning quality of Jesus’ words. He warns these women of very difficult days ahead.
3. What does it mean for me?– Now do you really think I am going to do your work for you? It remains for you and me to answer this question for our very selves. What do you weep about? Is it what really matters or is it merely about worldly losses that are going to be lost anyway? What kind of a world are we bequeathing to our children? Do we love life? Is new life a sign of hope for us or a burden? Do we speak prophetically about the culture of death? Do we encourage marriage and praise child bearing? Do we help young parents in some of the difficulties of raising children? But the Lord surely has more personal questions for you an me as well. Pray the text slowly and ponder what the Lord might be saying to you.
A Star Trek Episode, “The Mark of Gideon” depicts overpopulation anxieties of the mid 1960s. Captain Kirk is abducted to an over-populated planet. Look out the window in the opening moments of this video and see a true Malthusian nightmare. I remember being taught to fear over population in school and we were told that we were going to have no more room soon! The people in this video seek to reintroduce disease into their culture to cut down the population. Kirk exhorts them to use contraceptives and sterilization instead. The segment goes on to depict them as pathetic in their love for life. Kirks gets angry when they demonstrate respect for life from conception to natural death. But Kirk speaks for his age, and as is usually the case, the modern therapy he articulates is death.