Why did Jesus tell the women of Jerusalem, “Weep for yourselves, not for me,” when he was going to the cross?

Q. This morning I was reading Luke and was confused about Jesus’ response to the women who were following him, wailing and lamenting, as he walked towards his crucifixion. His remarks seem hard to understand at first glance and harsh. The women seem to be doing a very human and appropriate thing, that is, mourning the mistreatment of the Son of God. I see myself doing exactly the same thing. Yet he turns to them and says, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and your children.” That’s confusing enough, but then he goes on to say, “Blessed are the childless women.”  His words seem very out of context with the events that are taking place.

I believe that even here, on his way to the cross, Jesus is looking ahead to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 at the end of the first Jewish-Roman War, and he is expressing his pity and compassion for the victims of that impending conflict.

This is actually the third place in the gospel of Luke where Jesus does this.  The first time is when he approaches Jerusalem on this final visit and sees the city in the distance. He weeps over it and says, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

In other words, by rejecting the understanding of the kingdom of God that Jesus brought, and by following other leaders into a political and military revolt, the Jewish people would put themselves on a collision course with Rome that within a generation would have this tragic result.

Then, when Jesus and his disciples are touring the temple, he predicts that it will be destroyed, so that “not one stone will be left on another.”  When his disciples ask when this will happen, he describes the destruction of the city in more detail. (This is in the so-called Olivet Discourse, a long speech that also looks farther ahead, at its end, to Jesus’ Second Coming ).  Once again Jesus expresses his compassion for the innocent people who will suffer: “How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land.”  This is a second reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in the Jewish-Roman war, in which Jesus recognizes the suffering it will bring to innocent people.

The statement Jesus makes to the women of the Jerusalem as he is walking towards his crucifixion is a third such reference.  The suffering will be so terrible, we discover, that people will consider women fortunate who have not had children who will have to go through it.

And so it’s not that reflecting on Jesus’ sufferings and expressing sorrow over them is a bad thing to do. It was appropriate for those women, and it is still appropriate for us today.  But Jesus knew that terrible sufferings also awaited them, so he both warned them and expressed compassion for their impending fate.

Showing concern for others’ sufferings, even as he was about to be crucified, demonstrates our Savior’s heart of selfless compassion for others.  And so I believe he is honored in this Lenten season not only when we meditate on his sufferings, even weeping over them as these women did (and as countless believers have done in the centuries since), but also when we show the same compassion for the suffering of the innocent that he did.

A modern icon of the “Eight Station of the Cross,” where Jesus speaks to the weeping women.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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