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The Rev. Dr. Laura Mendenhall The Rev. Dr. Laura Mendenhall

The Rev. Dr. Laura S. Mendenhall is the former president of Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA, and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

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Presbyterian Church (USA)

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Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA


Do Not Weep for Me

Luke 23:26-31

Fourth Sunday in Lent

March 30, 2003

Jesus had been sentenced to die. The charges had been trumped up by a group of religious leaders who were threatened by Jesus' power over people, by the affection and loyalty he engendered among those who knew him, even among those who had only heard of him. Jesus was gathering about him folks from all walks of life and was upsetting the status quo in the religious community. Jesus' followers were questioning long-held beliefs and practices, for Jesus called people to something more than the law, to a mercy beyond reason.

Unable to make Jesus to fit into their system, the religious leaders fabricated charges of blasphemy and sedition and took Jesus to trial. Although his judges found no fault in him, they succumbed to the pressure of crowds who had been worked into a frenzy by religious leaders. Jesus and two criminals were sentenced to capital punishment. Large wooden crosses were placed on their backs and they were led off to their deaths.

Sleep deprived, beaten, bleeding, Jesus stumbled under the weight of the cross. The soldiers guarding him fretted. They resented being slowed down by Jesus' faltering. They commanded a passerby, Simon, to carry the cross, following behind Jesus.

On the road to the execution a crowd gathered, some of them still chanting, "Crucify him, crucify him!" In the crowd, holding back at a distance, were those who had put their official stamp upon Jesus' punishment, watching to see what would happen. Also in the crowd were his followers, fearing now for their own safety. Among his followers, only the women dared to approach the street as Jesus passed along. Surely, no one would notice them. But Jesus did. As he passed by them, Jesus noticed their grief and stopped to speak to them. Jesus said to them, "Daughters of Zion, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children."

Jesus spoke to the women and then moved on, speaking to no one else along the road. Actually, Luke is the only Gospel writer who even mentions this interchange with anyone along the way. But I am intrigued. If I had been there that day, if I had been there...maybe, just maybe, I would have been among those women and been able to ask Jesus what he meant when he said, "Do not weep for me." Maybe I could have caught just one more word of explanation from this dead man walking. For surely Jesus was not reprimanding these women. He was too young; he had done nothing wrong. His life of mercy should not have been met with a death of violence. Everything was wrong here. Jesus knew this. Why did he ask that they not weep for him? If I could have gotten one more question to Jesus as he passed by on the street, he might have replied, "Of course, you may weep for my death. I understand that you must weep for that which is wrong, for that which needs to be corrected and made right. But do not weep for me as if my kingdom is lost, as if I am going to something I have not chosen. Rather, weep for yourselves, for all that is wrong and needs to be made right in your own lives. Weep for your community that kills the one who gives mercy. Weep and repent."

But Jesus could not stop for long discourse. Those along the way would have to be content with what Jesus had already shown them, taught them, given them of God's kingdom. Jesus had to march on to his death, and the women were left weeping.

If I had been there, I imagine that I would also have wanted to speak to the women who were weeping. Did they understand what Jesus had said to them? How I would love to have interviewed those women. What did Jesus mean when he said, "Do not weep for me; weep for yourselves"?

I can imagine one of the women responding, "Jesus meant we should weep for ourselves because it's all over for him and, therefore, all over for us as well. We can forget the mercy Jesus promised us. He received no mercy himself. Forget it. It's over. Weep."

"No," I can imagine another replying. "Didn't you hear what Jesus said? He said NOT to weep for him. Jesus does not need our pity. God is still in charge here and God's mercy will endure forever." The first woman would surely raise her eyebrows at that but I would press on.

"Well, then," I would say, "what did Jesus mean, 'weep for yourselves'"?

"Jesus meant for us to repent."

"Repent?" I would ask.

"Yes, repent of our sin."

"What sin?" someone from the crowd might respond. "I do not steal."

"I do not murder," comes another voice. "I do not even lie or cheat."

"I have not committed adultery," says another.

"Of what sin shall we repent?" asked the crowd of saintly women who had brushed aside their fears in order to stay with Jesus on his Via Dolorosa.

"What could have been their sin?" I thought. "Why should these women weep for themselves?" Of all people, these godly women had little for which to repent. I would not have been able to help them interpret Jesus' words to them, "Weep for yourselves."

But I can imagine an older woman, quietly standing along the edges of the street, the marks of time on her face and in her gait, shuffling her feet, wrapping her shawl more tightly around her shoulders, and finally speaking up. "I remember the stories my grandmother used to tell me about how the weeping of women was a sign of our sin. My grandmother told me stories told to her by her grandparents and their grandparents before them. She told me stories of the sin in the Garden of Eden. Have you heard the stories?"

There would be nods as she continued, "In the Garden of Eden, God placed everything Adam and Eve would need. Everything. In the midst of the garden, God placed the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God told Adam and Eve not to pick of the Tree of Knowledge. But Adam and Eve wanted to be wise and were seduced into believing that their security lay apart from God--lay in their ability to know good and evil. Adam and Eve decided to put stock in their knowledge instead of trust and ended up weeping for themselves. That is why we weep for ourselves and repent," said the old woman. "Remember how God spoke through the prophet Isaiah to our ancestors of old:

My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are my ways higher than your ways
And my thoughts than your thoughts.

We must weep for ourselves and repent of the sin that causes us to assume that we are equal with God, knowing good and evil. We must weep for ourselves and repent of the sin of trusting in our own goodness rather than in the mercy of God.

Let us return to the Lord, as Isaiah said.
That God may have mercy on us.
Let us return to our God,
For God will abundantly pardon.

And among the women, I began to hear murmurings.

One young woman boldly confessed, "I know I have sin of which I must repent, but I am such a product of my era, so captive to my fears, so dominated by my own need that I cannot even recognize my sin. I am sure that on occasion I am arrogant in my claims of God's truth--as if I could fully know God's mind. I am sure that on occasion I am self-righteous in my understanding of what it is God calls us to do as if God were speaking only to me and those like me. I want to repent of these sins, to repent and receive God's mercy and abundant pardon." She smiled respectfully at the older woman, "My grandparents also told me the story of Adam and Eve. What I love in the story is that God kept searching for Adam and Eve. After they took from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, after they exchanged trust for knowledge, they became preoccupied with themselves. Now they knew that they were naked. They hid themselves in their shame for they knew they could not clothe themselves or one another. But God could and God did. God did for them what they could not do for themselves. God dealt with their shame. God will also deal with our shame, the shame we have for allowing ourselves to be seduced into exchanging trust in God's mercy for the knowledge of good and evil. We weep for ourselves:

Repenting of the arrogance which has us thinking that the kingdom is on our shoulders;
Repenting of our need to be in charge;
Repenting of the delusion that through our knowledge of good and evil we will know God;
Repenting of our foolish self-righteousness that causes us to think our minds can fathom the mercy of God;
Repenting and preaching Christ crucified, something we can never understand.

We cannot understand the untimely and unjust, violent death of this good man. Yet, we do not weep for Jesus. We weep for ourselves, for our hesitancy to trust that which we cannot understand, and we repent, putting aside our need to know and trusting in God's enduring mercy. The sound of weeping continues. These women were not weeping for Jesus but for themselves. They were praying.

In the years to come, Paul gave a warning to the church, "If you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall." A warning is understood as good news when the fire alarm sounds, getting us out of a burning building in time. Jesus' warning, "Weep for yourselves," is understood as good news when it shakes us from our stupor and awakens us to our sin, causing us to recognize that while we cannot understand the compassion of God, we can receive God's mercy. Moreover, we can incorporate into our own lives the compassion of the God who brought people out of slavery, out of the wilderness, out of their exile, the compassion of the God whose Son ate with outcasts, healed on the Sabbath, and was willing to conquer death for us. We know a mercy beyond reason. Thanks be to God.

Will you join me in prayer?

Holy God, we thank you that Jesus Christ took upon himself the weight of our sin
and carried the burden of our guilt. We are overwhelmed by your love,
going to the cross for us, enduring the grave, and leading us to new life.
By your Spirit, continue to look upon our frail lives with love and understanding.
Give us the grace of repentance, and guide us in the ways of righteousness.
Teach those who bear his name to follow the example he gave us. May our faith, hope and charity turn hatred to love, conflict to peace, and death to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.


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