Lament over Jerusalem

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Psalm 27

Philippians 3:17-4:1

Luke 13:31-35

Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem is a puzzle. Why should he lament a city where he says he will be killed? To understand, we must put this in context. Our lesson describes an incident when Jesus had been teaching uncomfortable things. Immediately prior to our text is the parable of the householder who shut the door and would not admit his former guests who were evildoers. The householder is the messiah, and those excluded “weep and gnash their teeth” to see the patriarchs and foreigners but not themselves admitted. Jesus repeats the familiar line, “some who are last will be first, and some are first who will be last.” Our text says that some Pharisees, who apparently were supporters of Jesus, warned Jesus to get out of the territory of Herod who must have been displeased with such teachings. Though Jesus refused to be hurried, he said he would leave soon because it would not be appropriate for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem. This was in reference to his own prediction, perhaps even intention, that he be killed in Jerusalem.

Now the Hebrew Bible mentions only one prophet being killed in Jerusalem; 2 Chronicles said that Zechariah son of Barachiah was killed by order of the king; this was not the same Zechariah whose prophetic writings we have. The parallel passage in Matthew cites the murder of innocent people from Abel in Genesis to Zechariah in 2 Chronicles; in the order of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis is the first book and 2 Chronicles is the last, so the point is a generalized condemnation of murder from first to last. Jesus, I believe, was taking Jerusalem to be the symbolic center of Israel’s betrayal of righteousness and of the covenant with God. Moreover, the betrayal was bloody murder, often directed against those who, like the Zechariah in question, were prophetic critics of the betrayal. Luke represents this as Jesus’ self-understanding of his own role as prophet; remember that Luke’s gospel was written after everyone knew that Jesus was indeed killed in Jerusalem.

The lament over Jerusalem needs to be understood against the background of the covenant between God and Israel. Our Genesis text describes one of the covenant scenes between God and Abram, later called Abraham, in which the elderly childless Abram is told he will have descendents as numerous as the stars in heaven. Abram believed God, and this belief was “reckoned as righteousness,” a phrase Paul would later pick up to indicate the meaning of faith: for Paul, Abram was justified because of this faith in the promise against all the evidence (Abram and his wife were too old to have children). Abram sacrificed a heifer, a female goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon, split the larger animals in two and walked between the halves carrying a smudge pot and a flaming torch to signify the covenant in which God, because of Abram’s righteousness in believing the promise of heirs, would give his descendents the land from the Nile to the Euphrates. Many other dimensions to this covenant emerged later, and then the covenant that Moses recorded gave much more explicit definition to the nature of Israel’s special relation to God. Finally God covenanted with David to keep his family on the throne so long as Israel was faithful to this rich, multi-sided covenantal relation that defined them as a nation of priests who, when they were holy, were allowed access to God’s presence. This literally meant having representatives go into the temple’s inner sanctuaries, and figuratively it meant living close to God in all things. Most of the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible has to do with complaints about Israel not living up to its end of the covenant, consorting with alien gods, and falling into terribly unjust practices, with God promising both punishments and mercy. When Jesus said that he had come to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19), he was presenting himself as the fulfillment of this prophetic tradition. And Jerusalem killed the prophets.

The theme of covenant, betrayal, and murder of the prophets is a sore point with Americans. The first European settlers in New England were explicit about founding a new society in covenant with God. The Puritan covenant was not about a place—any place would do. It was about a way of life of justice among peoples, and individual and corporate devotion to God. Of course greed was involved in the colonies as well, with devastating effects on the Native Americans; but the greed and the Indian Wars were known to be bad, to be failures of the covenant. The greatest failure of the American covenant was the inability to handle the problem of authority for its enforcement, an ancient biblical problem. By the time of the post-revolutionary constitutional debates, the notion of covenant had expanded beyond sectarian religion to embrace the Enlightenment themes of liberty, equality, opportunity, and self-determination for all, with a complicated government of checks and balances to foster protection of the weak, and of minorities, against the imposition of the will and culture of the majority. The American constitutional covenant embraced, in principle, people from any culture in the world who wanted to enter into the covenant of a pluralistic society with a willingness to make their way amidst a swarm of diverse ways of life. It welcomed the poor by offering opportunity. For over two hundred years, successive immigrant groups have made their way to America to develop American versions of their home cultures. In nearly every instance the fabric of American cultures at the time had to be rent and re-sewn to make room for them, often with pain but nearly always successfully. The great failure, of course, was the case of Africans brought to America in slavery, a blatant contradiction of the constitutional principles at the time of its adoption, the source of a bloody civil war, and the occasion of the deepest immorality of American society since the days of Reconstruction. Now, however, racism is recognized for the evil it is and is being amended on many fronts, however far we remain from a solution. The changes of immigration laws in the early 1970s allowed millions to come from Asian and Middle Eastern lands with cultures radically different from the genteel European culture of the Founding Fathers. No one can claim now that the United States is not in principle and often in practice a pluralistic nation based on a covenant to respect liberty, equality, opportunity, and self-determination.

As greed was the snake in the earliest American covenant, it has been a counter-theme in our national character ever since. It gathered explicit respectability in the presidency of Andrew Jackson who touted the slogan that “to the victor belong the spoils.” Greed was perhaps the greatest, though not only, component in the practice of slavery and racism, and it has fed America’s adventures in imperialism in its wars with Mexico and Spain and then in the cultivation of a global economy that insists on free trade for others and protection for American interests. Greed is a legitimate interest in a democracy, however reprehensible it might be morally and debasing to the ideals behind the covenant. Yet greed never overwhelmed the higher ideals of the covenant. The American policies after World War II that rebuilt Germany and Japan and revitalized their regions of the world, that supported the United Nations to share power with all peoples, and that bound the world together with multilateral treaties about economies and the environment, were magnificent te
stimonies to a generous American spirit. They extended the ideals of the American covenant to a conception of an entire world of freedom, equality, and opportunity, with a right of national self-determination, however compromised the ideals were in many details.

In our own time, however, it requires a prophet to remember the generosity of the American covenant. Our government advocates a global economic system that paupers nations that cannot compete and destroys cultures that are non-competitive. Our government responded to the criminal tragedies of 9/11, not with an international police action that would have been appropriate to counter an international terrorist organization, but with a bloated war on terrorism. In the name of that war we have invaded and now occupy two countries that did not attack or threaten ours. Greed, not the covenant to respect liberty, equality, opportunity, and self-determination, seems to guide our foreign adventures. At home our government’s tax policies favor the very rich while it withdraws social services from the poor that they need in order to have opportunity. On the one hand our courts are now extending the rights of liberty, equality, opportunity, and self-determination to homosexual people, as they earlier had done to women and African-Americans, all of whom had been denied those rights, inconsistently with constitutional principles. On the other hand the government is threatening a constitutional amendment to enforce one culture’s version of how those rights should be limited. Who will remind us of the covenant of liberty, equality, opportunity, and self-determination, and of the generosity of Americans toward those of lesser freedom, unequal burdens, and frustrated opportunity? Like Jerusalem, America has not always been kind to its prophets. See the memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr., in front of this church.

Jesus did not lament over Jerusalem because it would kill him, or because it had killed the prophets before him. He lamented because it had not been faithful to the covenant that made it a holy city. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Our standing as American Christians is a complicated one. As Christians we should love all people, including those at enmity with America, and help first the least among our brothers and sisters. As Americans we have a natural desire to see America prosper in material goods, culture, and moral standing. Like Jesus, we cannot take up a condemnatory attitude toward our country, however much we might lament its current repudiation of its complicated founding covenant. Rather, our lamentation should be to take it under our wings as a hen gathers her brood. As Jesus went to Jerusalem to engage it, not repudiate it as Jerusalem had repudiated its covenant, we need to engage our country and its confusions now. Christians need to be their country’s spiritual directors, its shrivers!

So let us pray for a spirit of honest analysis of America’s policies abroad and at home, subjecting them to tests of righteousness, liberty, equality, opportunity, and self-determination. Let us pray for a spirit of courage to lift up and condemn the dross of bloated greed and power-madness. Let us pray for a spirit of power to speak these truths to those who hold power and can use it to silence prophets. Let us pray for a spirit of subtlety to understand the ambiguities of righteousness while upholding it, and to communicate this at home, in the workplace, and on the street, to strangers and even to friends. Let us pray for a spirit of humility to see where our righteousness become false righteousness and our moral certainties turn out to be foolishness. Let us pray for a spirit of faith that shows Jesus’ death to be the only saving one and that suffering on our part is not cosmically noble, only sad. Let us pray for a spirit of hope that sustains us when the enemy corrupting our covenant turns out to be our own interests and the institutions that sustain them. Let us pray for a spirit of love that keeps us engaged when we lose, that binds the love of our country to the love of all those other countries, and that never lets us think the voice of prophecy is ours against the villains because the voice of prophecy is God’s and we all are the villains loved by God.

So come to the communion table to join with other sinners grateful for God’s prophetic blandishments. Come to the table to celebrate Jerusalem’s murder that led to new life. Come partake of death’s detritus that is yeast to cause righteousness to rise wherever Christians gather for the good grace of Christ. Though our covenants be broken, yet may they ever be renewed. Though we be blinded by greed, yet may our generosity be restored. Though Jerusalem’s pride causes it to be toppled stone from stone, yet may it repent and be rebuilt. Gather at the table with those who lament our social betrayals and yet find seeds of resurrecting life everywhere. Gather with those whose love of country, neighbors, and self burns hot to purify our lives. Gather with those who pray to receive the holiness that brings us all to God. Behold God’s covenant, God’s betrayers, God’s redeemer, God’s saints, God’s hospitality, our home. Everyone is welcome at this table, gathered under God’s wings. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Leave a Reply