“Lamenting over Jerusalem” Colchester Federated Church, Second Sunday of Lent (Luke 13:31-35) March 17, 2019

Some have said that the Holy Land is the Fifth Gospel.  Pilgrimages to the Holy Land are powerful journeys because one walks in the footsteps of Jesus himself.  If we believe that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” as the Gospel of John explains in the prologue, then we know that in Jesus the Word was made flesh.[1]  That flesh and blood human being lived at a specific time and in a specific place on this earth.  A place we know today as Israel and Palestine.  So when we make that journey to the place that Jesus called home we understand some of the lessons he taught and the stories written about his life on a different level.

There are pilgrim walks that people can physically journey in the Holy Land to better understand our Christian faith.  For instance, one can begin on the top of the Mount of Olives (yes, it’s still there) at Bethphage where the chapel is the starting point for the Palm Sunday Processional.  Then pilgrims walk down the mountain to the Chapel of the Ascension where Christians commemorate Jesus ascending after the Resurrection.  From there, one walks to Pater Noster, a church that commemorates Jesus teaching the disciples to pray the Lord’s Prayer.

And then one would arrive further down the Mount of Olives at Dominus Flevit which means “the Lord wept,” a church that commemorates Jesus weeping over Jerusalem.  The church is literally shaped like a tear drop.  There is a large window behind the altar that is plate glass, so when one sits inside the chapel praying the view out the window is of Jerusalem.  The city that was near and dear to the heart of Jesus, the city where he journeyed to celebrate the High Holy Days.  The city where he was both crucified and resurrected and where his followers somehow carried on the faith despite the fearful times in which they were living.

Jesus weeping over Jerusalem happens in Luke Chapter 19 though we see Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem in our story today.  Medieval pilgrims were the first to designate a rock on the Mount of Olives as the place where Jesus wept over Jerusalem.  Eventually the Franciscans built a small chapel and when excavations took place it was even discovered that there was a monastery and a large cemetery on the grounds of what is today Dominus Flevit.  At any rate, the site has a sweeping view of the city of Jerusalem and provides an ideal place for pilgrims to pause and contemplate how Jesus must have felt about this place and its people.

For Jesus laments: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”[2]  It’s important to remember that the roadblocks Jesus encountered throughout his ministry were personal and he seemed to take them personally.  He wasn’t some aloof philosophical figure sharing ideas, but never taking things to heart.  Jesus had moments of anger and sadness.  We see him lamenting over Jerusalem.  Lamenting is a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.  Jesus is mourning, that he wants nothing more than to gather the people of Jerusalem together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.  But that’s not the reality that he’s encountering and it makes him full of sorrow.

Our Gospel text for this Second Sunday in Lent is deeply rooted in the sacred city of Jerusalem with Jesus mourning over the city and its people.  Our story also can help us challenge some assumptions we Christians too often make.  Now people make assumptions all the time.  Let’s face it, Christians often make assumptions about the various Jewish groups that were around in Jesus’ day whenever we hear them mentioned in the Gospels: the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Jesus’ movement.

If I asked what you think or remember learning about the Pharisees—chances are you won’t be thinking of many positive attributes.  We tend to assume that Pharisees are holy rollers, self-righteous, confrontational, maybe even bad based on some Biblical texts.  Though this is an over-simplification to say the least, and it can be offensive when we recall that Rabbinic Judaism (modern Judaism) traces its roots to the Pharisees.  So let’s explore the Pharisees a bit because their example teaches us how making assumptions within religion especially doesn’t work out so well.

First of all, the Pharisees redefined Judaism in a way that lasted.  The Essenes hung out in the desert and the Sadducees were in power and hyper focused on the Temple—neither group lasted.  It was the Pharisees who kept the Jewish tradition alive.  They established the authority of Oral Torah (teachings and interpretations of traditions that were transmitted orally before eventually being written down) alongside the Written Torah.  They opened up observances that were once undertaken exclusively by priests to all people.  So whatever their role within Judaism might have been in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were the leaders who redefined Judaism after the devastating destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.  They were a popular group in the First Century and reinterpreted the scriptures and their Jewish faith in a rapidly changing world.  The Pharisees were reformers.

It’s also worth noting that the Pharisees didn’t have a ton of power when Jesus was going about his ministry.  The Pharisees were not part of the governing class and were competing for power and influence within Judaism.  All of the Passion narratives agree that when Jesus was crucified it was the Romans who were calling the shots alongside the chief priests and the scribes.  The Sadducees had power within Judaism—they were the ones influencing the Romans to execute Jesus as a political insurrectionist.  Our Christian Gospels (most notably Matthew’s Gospel) that have some hostilities toward the Pharisees were influenced by what happened after 70 C.E for the most part.  Because then it was the Pharisees and the Jews of the Jesus Movement who were competing for power within Judaism.[3]  It would be like writing down stories at the height of a family fight when sometimes we say something that we wish we could take back.  Once more and more Gentiles began following in the Way of Jesus, the separation between Judaism and Christianity became complete.

Though it’s really important that we don’t paint all Pharisees as self-righteous, hypocritical, bad holy rollers even though there’s some of that sentiment in the Gospels.  It’s important because that mindset has contributed to Christians making all sorts of false assumptions about Judaism.  Thankfully Luke’s Gospel presents a more nuanced view of the Pharisees.  For instance, how do we understand some Pharisees coming up to Jesus and saying to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you”?[4]  That’s right, it’s a group of Pharisees who warn Jesus that his teachings are going to get him killed in our story today.  Did we notice that?

New Testament scholars are quick to say that Luke’s presentation of Pharisees is puzzling, inconsistent, and complicated.  Sometimes the Pharisees do grumble at Jesus’ disciples about table fellowship and Jesus himself calls them hypocrites.  But today we encounter Pharisees warning Jesus about Herod wanting to kill him.  Should we take this as a friendly gesture or some Pharisees trying to derail Jesus from his mission?[5]  I’m going with some Pharisees befriending Jesus and warning him out of compassion and real concern for his personal safety.  Luke distinguishes among the Pharisees by often adding “some” Pharisees to stories about them.  Translation: don’t paint this group within Judaism with such a broad brush.

This is an important reminder in our political atmosphere.  It would be like saying all poor people are lazy.  All Muslims are terrorists.  All African American men are criminals.  All Latinos are here illegally.  What a sad state of affairs when people make those kinds of sweeping assumptions about individuals based on stereotypes. And guess what?  Words can become ideas which lead to actions.  49 people lost their lives when they were peacefully praying in a House of Worship in New Zealand.  49 Muslims who that shooter vilified in his mind before he killed them and injured many more and shook a peaceful country that doesn’t have the kind of mass shootings we have in ours.  Knowing that ideas can become actions can hopefully make us stop with the assumptions.  We are challenged to remember that Christians are called to love one another as God first loved us.  Jesus himself saw human beings with the loving eyes of God.  If we want to walk in his footsteps whether in the Holy Land or here in Colchester, we are challenged to treat one another the way that we would want to be treated.

So we can appreciate this story about some Pharisees coming up to Jesus as his friends and warning him to be careful.  Because it’s a good reminder that just as we can’t assume the Pharisees and Jesus were always at odds with each other, we can’t assume that stereotypes about groups of people are necessarily true.  As if there’s not diversity.  As if people aren’t full of surprises.  Because assumptions can take many forms, and there are many more assumptions we could have explored together.  And since it’s Lent and we’re hopefully open to self-examination and honesty, we can admit that we make assumptions about people.  And people make assumptions about us.  But the next time we jump to assume, we can remember that some Pharisees went out of their way to warn Jesus of what was to come because maybe they had his back.  Maybe they were even friends.  It ends up that people can be full of surprises.  And thanks be to God for that.  Amen.

[1] John 1:1, NRSV.
[2] Luke 13:34.
[3] Marilyn J. Salmon, Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism, 75-107.
[4] Luke 13:31.
[5] Amy Jill-Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, “Pharisees in Luke” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation, 110.