Jesus rode down the Mount of Olives in tears. What makes you weep?
If you’ve ever been to a small funeral, you know that it’s always a bit more depressing than most. Whether the person has outlived most of his or her family and friends or they were simply not well known by others, having just a few mourners show up makes the service even sadder than usual.
A new business in the UK, however, has offered to rectify that situation. “Rent a Mourner” actually provides professional mourners at 45 pounds per hour that will come to a funeral and cry for the duration of the service in order to make it appear that the deceased was more popular than anyone knew. The mourners-for-hire are briefed on the life of the deceased so that they will be able to talk to family and friends at the funeral as if they had really known him or her. It’s a growing business with booking up 50% year on year, causing the company to expand to different areas.
Sounds weird and a little bit morbid, right? Well, actually, the presence of professional mourners at a funeral is ancient practice that dates back to biblical times and is still practiced in some Middle Easter and Asian cultures. In biblical times, for example, women were hired to follow a funeral procession and wail loudly for the deceased. Since the mourning rites often lasted as long as seven days, the professionals could keep crying even after the family had been exhausted by their own tears. In fact, these “wailing women,” as they were known, sometimes captured their tears in a little bottle called a lachrymatory, which was then buried with the dead. We see a glimpse of that tradition in Psalm 56:8 where the writer says, “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?”
We also see what might be a reference to this tradition in Luke’s Gospel. In Luke 8, for example, Jesus comes to the home of Jairus, whose daughter has died. Luke says when Jesus walked in they were all “weeping and wailing for her” but when Jesus said, “Do not weep for she is only sleeping,” they laughed at him. A family would have wiped their tears in hope—professional mourners would laugh because if the deceased actually rose from the dead they’d be out of a job!
One of the places those professional mourners would have done a lot of business was on the Mount of Olives outside the walls of Jerusalem. During biblical times, the western slope of the hill was dotted with burial caves. Today, that tradition continues with thousands of Jewish gravesites covering the hill from top to bottom. Jewish tradition holds that when the Lord returns to Zion and rebuilds the Temple, the Kidron Valley will be where he judges the people, and being buried on the hillside means that you can be one of the first in line. You don’t see professional mourners there much today, but the stones laid on top of the tombs indicate the grief of those who have come to visit the resting place of the deceased.
The Palm Sunday road down the Mount of Olives skirts this ancient graveyard. We might wonder if there were some of those professional mourners out there weeping on the Sunday morning that Jesus rode down the street and into the city. If there were, they might not have noticed that Jesus was weeping, too—but for the living and not the dead.
We know from the Gospels that Jesus actually cried at least twice in his life (but probably a lot more). Most of you know that the shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35 – “Jesus wept.” There in Bethany, on the other side of the Mount of Olives, he was weeping over the death of his friend Lazarus, or he was weeping at the lack of hope around him, or he was weeping over the wailing of those wailing women who had also gathered at Lazarus’ tomb. Scholars have long debated about the source of Jesus’ tears on that occasion. But here in Luke, as Jesus sides astride a donkey, with shouts of acclamation all around him, he is again in tears—not the tear of a professional, but the tears of a prophet—echoes of the Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah. In those days the weeping was about the approaching exile of the people of Jerusalem to Babylon—for Jesus, the weeping was about the approach of an even more deadly event.
There on the hillside, in the midst of the tombs, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem—“If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace,” he cried. “But now they are hidden from your eyes.” One would not have expected a king making a triumphal entry into the city to be crying. Indeed, it was a joyous occasion for his disciples, who praised God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.” You might recall that these are the same words of joy spoken by the angels in Bethlehem at Jesus’ birth—peace! Good news of great joy to all people! Now it was coming true—Israel’s true king and messiah coming into the city to herald God’s return, Israel’s true king and messiah coming to take over. But instead of smiling, Jesus is weeping, and in his tears we find the core of the gospel he had been preaching all along.
We begin Holy Week knowing where it’s going to take us—to the cross and to a tomb. Indeed, we’ve known this even when we celebrated Jesus’ birth a few months ago. The Gospel writers want us to keep the destination in mind as we read, and Luke is perhaps the most clear about where things are headed. You could argue, in fact, that the Gospel of Luke is really the story of one long funeral procession that begins in chapter 9 when Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem.” We know what will happen there, and so does Jesus. He will die on a cross at the hands of the Romans, but Jesus also knows that Jerusalem is headed for its own day of reckoning. Again and again during his long journey, Jesus had warned of God’s impending judgment on the city and on the Temple because they had resisted his calls for peace, just like they had resisted the calls of the prophets before him. And just like in the days of prophets, Jerusalem was headed toward destruction.
In fact, some of those graves that Jesus passed by on the Mount of Olives that day would have contained the bodies of those who had tried to rebel against Rome. For many in Israel and Jerusalem, the way to get rid of the occupying army of Rome, an army of pagans, was to revolt against them with the sword. During the lifetime of Jesus, hundreds of people in Jerusalem and Galilee had died trying to fight Roman power. Would-be messiahs popped up over and over again, sword in hand, only to be crucified outside the city and buried in non-descript tombs on the hillside. The people were looking for the one true messiah who would finally finish the job, and the one riding down the Mount of Olives that Sunday just might fit the bill. He had the miraculous power to heal, to feed the masses with nothing but a few loaves and a couple of fish, to command the crowd with his words. But, strangely, he was coming on a donkey, not a war horse, and he was coming not with shouts of defiance, but with his tears. This “visitation” was an echo of the prophet Zechariah, who envisioned the king riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey colt, but it was also something radically different than they expected. What they wanted was a warrior, what they got was a savior.
Luke’s first readers would not have to speculate on what Jesus was talking about as he wept. If Luke was written after 70AD, as many scholars believe, they would have known that what Jesus predicted had already occurred. In AD 66, the zealots in Jerusalem started a large-scale armed revolt against Rome, which Rome responded to by sending its soon to be emperor Vespasian and his heir Titus to put it down. The Romans laid siege to Jerusalem, which led to horrific scenes of cannibalism and destruction. When Rome broke through the city walls, soldiers razed the Temple and began crucifying the holdouts, ringing the city with crosses (The Arch of Titus in Rome commemorates this even). All that Jerusalem was would cease—all because it had rejected its true messiah and the peace he was bringing.
“Indeed, the days will come upon you,” Jesus said, “when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave you with one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” Luke’s readers could point to the smoldering ruins. The wailing women who followed Jesus to the cross would have remembered his cry of warning to them through his pain, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me but weep for yourselves and your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.’ 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?” (23:28-31).
All of this is contained in Jesus’ tears—it’s not the gloating of one who will say, “I told you so,” but the deep pain and shaking sobs of God’s Son, who so loved the city wanted to take it’s fate on himself. In Luke 13:34-35, we see Jesus’ first lament over the city: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often I have desired to gather your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” When there’s a fire in the hen house, the hen will gather her chicks under her wings, allowing herself to be burned while saving her children. This is what Jesus believes his mission to be: to take the punishment of his people upon himself and save them from the coming fire. And so his triumphal entry is actually a funeral procession—and the one who will die is shedding the tears.
And his tears are not just for Jerusalem, but for a world that is always seeking a way other than the way of peace. We live in violent times where war and rumor of war is always present. We see the dehumanization of people through consumerism and violence. We live in a culture that’s obsessed with pleasure and wanting more. Over the centuries the church has tried many approaches to this kind of world. We’ve approached it with power, with blame, with inquisition; we’ve approached it with doctrines, with denominations, and sometimes with detachment. But rarely have we approached it with tears. In the midst of a triumph, Luke wants us to pause and remember that Jesus wept—not just for those who could afford it, but for the whole world.
Part of the way down the Palm Sunday road there is a little turnoff to a grotto where there is a church named “Dominus Flevit” (which is Latin for “The Lord has wept”). The church marks the traditional spot where Jesus paused and wept over the city on Palm Sunday. When you approach the building you notice that it’s built in the shape of a teardrop, thus its name. The church was built in the 1950s and when construction commenced there were several tombs from the first century found on the site, one of which is visible today as you enter the grounds. It’s clear that even before there was a church here, many tears had been shed on this spot by mourners professional and otherwise.
Going into the little chapel, you notice immediately that there is a window behind the altar. Looking through it, you can see Jerusalem and it reminds you of Jesus’ words said through his tears—words of lament, words of love for a people who did not receive him. This holy spot, this Church of Dominus Flevit, is a place to see the world through tears.
“Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus preached. Blessed are those who view the world through the tears of Christ. Blessed are those who, like Jesus, look at the world with love instead of contempt, who see others not as enemies to be eradicated but as people, made in the image of God and worthy of God’s grace, forgiveness, and love. Blessed are those who make peace instead of relishing conflict, those who are in pain where the world is in pain. Blessed are those who would give their lives for a world that is marching fast toward the graveyard. Blessed are those who would gather the people in their neighborhoods, their workplaces and schools, as chicks under the wings of a self-sacrificing savior. Blessed are those who see the world through tears. Blessed is every church that sees itself as a Dominus Flevit—weeping with the Lord for his world.
The story is told of a missionary family in a remote jungle who was having little success in getting the natives to come and hear about Jesus. Year after year he and his wife helped people in the village and invited them to come to church, but while the people were pleasant and grateful for their help, they did not respond to the teaching about Christ. A few years into their stay, the missionary couple had a son—a vibrant little boy who grew up in the village and was the joy of their hearts. When he was about five years old, however, the boy contracted a fever and died. The father took his son outside the village to bury him with the help of some of the villagers. After the last spade of dirt was placed on the little grave, the father began to cry—deep sobs of grief overtook him.
The village men stared at him for a long time, eyes wide. Then they jumped up and ran to the village yelling at the top of their lungs, “The white man! He cries! Just like we do!” After that, the missionary church was filled every Sunday, where the people wanted to hear from the white man who cried just like they did, about the Savior who came and cried for them.
At Christmas time we celebrate the incarnation—that God became flesh in Jesus Christ. The Christ who comes knows our grief, our brokenness, our pain and enters into it with his tears, his pain, and his death. We best come to know him through his tears. He rides into the city in triumph, but his triumph is a cross and his suffering is our salvation. His tears speak volumes.
A professional mourner can never know the real pain of loss in their fake crying for the dead. Only a real family member or a friend can do that. A detached, professional church will never know the pain of its community. Only a Dominus Flevit Church can do that.
May we be a people whose tears are blessed because they are shed for the world—the world Christ gave his life for. Amen.