I’m having trouble discerning what Luke was trying to communicate when he referred to the women of Jerusalem on Jesus’ trek up to Golgotha [in Luke 23:28-31]. If this is exactly what Jesus said, I have no idea what he meant. Can you shed some light on this?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
Thanks to Kristyn for something Christians might ponder during the Holy Week season of sorrow that precedes Easter joy. Jesus’ saying was poetic prophecy that, yes, can be opaque. This shows the value of owning a good one-volume Bible commentary and a “study Bible” to help with understanding. The Religion Guy consulted a variety of such reference works and they generally agree on the meaning of Jesus’ Good Friday words and the Old Testament prophecies he was quoting.
Among the four New Testament Gospels, this material only appears in Luke chapter 23. The lead-up in verse 27 merits special attention. Luke reports that as Jesus struggled on the road to crucifixion he was followed by “a great multitude of the people, and of women who bewailed and lamented him.” The Temple authorities had rallied crowd support in seeking execution by Rome, and anti-Semites have exploited this in the Christian past.
Luke’s account tells us Jewish opinion was split. The women gathering to bemoan execution was something of a public ritual in that culture. But Luke indicates there was a “multitude” of common Jews who identified with Jesus’ movement or lamented his unjust sufferings. It seems likely some were followers of Jesus in town who had joined the “Palm Sunday” hosannas days earlier.
Then we come to verses 28-31 and three linked prophecies of doom that Jesus addressed to the women: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never gave suck!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
Jesus’ first oracle was paraphrased by Protestant scholar I. Howard Marshall, former president of the British New Testament Society: “Do not weep so much for me as for yourselves and your children” because in a coming time it “would be better not to have children than to see their sufferings.” Similarly, Jesuit John Donahue of California’s Graduate Theological Union said Jesus was telling Jerusalem that “so terrible will be its fate that the women without children will be fortunate.” Jesus thus reversed the Old Testament depiction of childlessness as a curse and turned it into a blessing. There’s possibly an echo of Jeremiah 16:1-4, where the prophet cited Israel’s devastation to explain why he had no wife or children.Jesus’ second stat4ement quoted an expression of despair in Hosea 10:8: “They shall say to the mountains, Cover us, and to the hills, Fall upon us.” This portrays people desperately crying for mountains and hills to provide shelter, just as in Isaiah 2:19 they scramble for protection into caverns and hollows in the ground. A related but grimmer interpretation of Hosea is people longing for an earthquake or other natural cataclysm so death will end their misery. This saying is carried verbatim into the Bible’s last book, in Revelation 6:15-16.
Jesus’ third statement cited another Hebrew judgment prophecy, Ezekiel 20:47: “Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree; the blazing flame shall not be quenched.” Exegetes explain that Jesus referred to himself as the green wood not easily consumed by fire, and Jerusalem as the dangerously flammable dry wood. The meaning was that if the innocent Jesus was not spared then guilty Jerusalem was in far greater risk of destruction. In Donahue’s summary, “If such crime as his death can occur now, what will be the horrors of the city’s crisis?”
Marshall concludes that in this passage “the words are of pity rather than condemnation.”
Though liberals and skeptics may question future predictions in the Bible, Christian tradition says that Jesus was looking toward the destruction of Jerusalem that did occur one generation later. Speaking of “blazing flames,” the Romans torched the Holy City and the Temple. Rome’s troops retaliated after Jews had overturned their occupation, laid a siege and recaptured the city in A.D. 70. They slaughtered thousands, enslaved thousands more who survived, and pillaged and leveled the Temple, which permanently changed the religion and history of the Jewish people.
Another technical note: Kristyn wonders if this is actually “what Jesus said”? Many university professors will pooh-pooh such belief. But Luke stated that the information in his Gospel was “delivered to us” by “eyewitnesses.” If so, it’s certainly possible that some observers along the “Via Dolorosa” heard Jesus’ words on that memorable day and passed them on.