Lectionary Reflection: Lent 2

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

This week’s Gospel reading presents the memorable scene of Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem. In Mathew this scene takes place inside the city, between Jesus’ entry and his Passion. In Luke, however, it takes place outside the city, just before Jesus enters. What might Luke be trying to suggest?

Käthe Kollwitz, "Die Klage" (Lament), 1938-1940, Bronze © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2005

Gillian Rose reminds us that some of art’s most searing depictions of grief and mourning take place outside city walls: Antigone buries her brother outside the palace gates of Athens, Phocion’s wife gathers the ashes of her husband outside of Megara. In both of these cases, such acts of mourning were forbidden. Antigone’s brother fought on the wrong side of Thebes’ civil war and his body was left for prey, while Phocion was accused of treachery and executed, his remains burned and scattered. Mourning in such settings can be seen as many things: a sign of loyalty to family, fidelity to the gods, or resistance to unjust laws. Regardless, there is a sense that such acts of grief are more than acts of private affection; they restore rights, redeem honor, re-establish order.  In other words, they are public acts. They are acts of justice. They are offered as much for the city as they are for their loved ones.

Political tensions are high in Luke’s scene as well. “At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you” (13:31). Like Antigone and Phocion’s wife, Jesus does not back down: “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem” (13: 32-33). Jesus acknowledges his own impending death; however, the focus of his lament is not his death but the city itself. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Jesus mourns the broken relationship between God and the people of Israel. But he goes further than this. He mourns for it from the perspective of the covenanting God Himself: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (13:34).

Our reading from Genesis recalls what should have been: a covenant between God and his people, where God gives everything His people need and His people find their freedom and joy in Him. But Jesus laments, “you were not willing” (13:34). Intended as a “land of the living” (Ps. 27:13), Jerusalem had become a place of violent dissension and death.

Like Antigone and Phocion’s wife, Jesus mourns for the city outside the walls, in the place of exile. Like them, his lament registers the meeting point of transcendent justice and human injustice. Jesus, however, goes on to enter Jerusalem, moving the place of lament from the fringes of the city into its very heart. Lament becomes a way of inhabiting the city, a manner of bearing human imperfection as if from the city’s fringes. To encounter Jesus in the city is to be taken with him to the place of lament outside it.

One might say lament becomes a form of citizenship. In this week’s epistle reading, Paul contrasts those who “live according to the example you have in us” (4:17) and those whose “minds are set on earthly things” (4:19). He does so “with tears” (4:18). He goes on to say, “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (4:20). Such a citizenship does not take us out of the world, but leaves us restless about the way the world is. It leaves us mourning for the world. As Bonhoeffer puts it, “By ‘mourning’ Jesus means doing without what the world calls peace and prosperity: He means refusing to be in tune with the world or to accommodate oneself to its standards. Such men mourn for the world, for its fate and its fortune. While the world keeps holiday they stand aside, and while the world sings, ‘Gather ye rose-buds while ye way,’ they mourn… And in this way they show how close are the bonds which bind them to the rest of humanity.”

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