“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! 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.”
These are four sentences from Jesus that are pretty dense with meaning. I think what sticks out to me first is the juxtaposition of two, on their own, well-known lines. Jesus refers to Jerusalem as “the city that kills the prophets,” a sentiment repeated in several Gospel accounts. It’s a stark and violent accusation, intransigence to the point of malice and murder. And immediately, it’s followed with one of the most well-known tender lines in the Gospels: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” This language that Jesus uses sticks out as quite intimate, loving, caring. When taken on its own, we might have in mind the sentimentalized image of a mother with her cranky child. But when placed in the context of killing the prophets, there’s nothing to be sentimentalized: the stakes here are life or death, and the cranky child becomes a violently delusional figure. Jesus is frustrated and exhausted, but more deeply than that, Jesus is heartbroken. This is a lament.
I’m reminded of so many stories of people falling prey to conspiratorial thinking, lured down a social media-fueled rabbit hole, algorithms efficiently and profitably showing people more and more inflammatory content, until their mind is so thoroughly warped as to see nothing but lurking evil in every corner. I’m reminded of their heartbroken friends and family, children, spouses, parents, watching people they love descend into lives of constant fear, constant watching for the next big exposure that will vindicate what they’ve been led to believe. I’m reminded of how intractable, how incurable, it all seems. One thing is clear, logical argument and empirical evidence don’t seem to work; they didn’t fall into the trap through logic and evidence, and it won’t get them out. The antidote, as difficult and costly as this can be, is love. Not merely keeping the peace, not agreeing with their conspiracies, but accepting them, being respectful but earnest about one’s own beliefs, and providing a supportive exit ramp, so that the person in question can slowly descend from the fury without fear of shame, without fear of being rejected, ridiculed, and ostracized. In short, to swallow one’s own pride and love, even if it’s frustrating, embarrassing, humiliating, neither denying the truth nor forcefully imposing it, seeking not triumph and being proven right, but reconciliation. Christ, I think, knows something of this, as he looks upon the beloved who will surely put him to death.
But, it’s not just a few people, the crazies beyond the pale, over there, who are subject to this kind of twisted reasoning. We all are. It’s us. Even if we’re entirely conscious of our foibles, our biases, our predilections to sin, we still do it. As Paul writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.” This dissonance is the sort of clear-mindedness, the coming out of the fog, that happens upon realizing our own attachments, before we are, for a moment or a lifetime, pulled back under into the deception. We all turn to things that are destructive, self-centered, or fantastical as a means of escaping reality: “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.” There are different versions, of course. Food or sex, money or status, power or judgment, we all have our recourses to feeling better, our quick fixes to make sense of a world that often just doesn’t. We build our own little dwellings here, and run to them to escape, if only for a moment.
It’s common, though, after the immediate danger has passed, to realize the inadequacy of these lonely little dwellings. As Christ says, “See, your house is left to you.” We can recognize, with a clearer mind, that running to these places didn’t fix the problem. Safe for now, but empty, and isolated, and like all that we build, they eventually fall. So what can we do?
This seems to me where the final line of Christ’s lament is instructive: “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.’” Psalm 27 speaks of God as a refuge, a sure dwelling; the psalmist declares, “One thing have I asked of the Lord, one thing I seek, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life; to behold the fair beauty of the Lord, and to seek him in his temple.”
This language weaves a connection between dwelling with God and beholding God, with both of these being a central, fundamental desire of the life of God’s people. When we see it with the final line of Jesus’s lament in today’s Gospel, we get an inversion of what we might expect. Jesus does not say that the city will proclaim “Blessed is the one that comes in the name of the Lord” upon seeing Jesus. It’s just the opposite; the city will behold Jesus when they offer the ancient prayer. And this seems to me a fundamental aspect of the sort of faith Christians are called to, “for faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
In a way, you could see this as like the conspiratorial thinking I criticized earlier, the constant looking for the payoff of one’s belief. But the key difference, I think, is that what is being asked of us is not faith that we were right about all the malice and destruction in the world, all the things that we think are evil and bad, all the ways we can exalt ourselves in triumph over the world’s wrongs. Rather, this faith is an assurance of the fundamental goodness of existence, the assurance that, through all the misery and wrong, enduring it in flesh and blood, is the one who comes, reconciling the broken pieces of a lamentable world, gathering them up as a hen gathers her brood. This faith, then, is the response to the lament of Jesus, because his primary heartbreak is that we were not willing to be gathered. This faith is, in spite of everything that harms and destroys, everything that isolates and makes ill, everything that scatters, the willingness to be reconciled.
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.