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  • Larry Payne

Tears of Jesus--for Us?

As I walked across Jerusalem’s Mt. of Olives, my eye caught the unusual chapel on the hillside. The white stone building was shaped like a teardrop, pointed at the top and flowing dramatically to the ground. I was looking at the Franciscan church called Dominus Flevit.  From inside the small chapel, you can look through a large arched window to see the Eastern Wall and the golden Dome of the Rock. A beautiful mosaic, more than 1400 years old, covers the floor picturing a hen gathering her chicks. Designed by Antonio Buluzzi, the chapel calls to mind the dramatic moment Jesus stopped on his final journey, looked down on the city, and began to weep in foreboding distress.[1] 




All of us know the emotional moments when tears trail down our cheeks. It is a normal expression of emotion. When the Bible describes Jesus crying, however, questions come. Why would Jesus cry? Let’s explore the truth of tears for us—and for God.

Humans are the only animals that cry. Why in the world did we evolve this trait? Sophie Putka quotes scientists that suggest “the most compelling explanation for tearful crying is that it is driven by our social needs. Crying is a distinct visual signal that something is wrong. In an instant, it communicates that someone might need help. When others attend to the crier, it contributes to a collaborative social environment that is highly complex in humans.”[2] Think about the last time you cried. You were probably emotional, maybe sad, empathetic, or hurt. Your tears were raising a flag signaling for others to know and respond with support.

We find this story about Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. Luke is not a historical biography as we know it today. It is a theological piece written for those who lived after the Jewish-Roman War of 64-72 CE. The Christians were separating from Judaism and under oppression by Rome. Using a variety of sources, around 75 CE the author created a two-volume narrative about Jesus teaching a universal Kingdom that fulfilled in a new way the hopes of Jewish history. The Gospel sought to inspire a transforming relationship to God that follows the lifestyle of Jesus in a community of faith and action.[3]

According to Luke, Jesus approaches Jerusalem in personal and religious turmoil. The tension had been growing between Jesus, the religious authorities that feared him, and the masses who were following this charismatic teacher. Jesus sensed all this had reached a breaking point. His future—and the future of this world—hung in the balance. His eyes fill, his shoulders shake, and the sobs vent his anguish.

What do his tears mean?

Process theology has put aside the classic Greek idea of a God who is perfect and unchanging in all respects, separated from the world in holy bliss. That doesn’t square with the Bible’s witness of God who is in loving relationship to all things and all people. Theologian Richard Rice wrote, “Identifying God with Jesus leads ultimately to the conclusion that what Jesus experienced in the depths of his anguish was experienced by God himself. The life and death of Jesus supports the idea that God is intimately involved in the creaturely world and experiences it in a dynamic way… aware of, involved in, and deeply sensitive to human events. [God’s] inner life is not static or impassive at all. It surges with powerful emotions.”[4]

These tears of Jesus teach us that you and I are not alone in our experiences. God cries along with us, laughs along with us, and hopes with us as our closest companion. In a lonely world this can mean the difference of carrying on or falling into despair. Hayley, a woman struggling with an angry and distant husband, felt she couldn’t handle it all. She was overburdened with kids, work, and a sense nothing was going right. She turned to God, renewing a belief long neglected. Her courage and persistence grew. Though the struggle with home problems remains, she knows that God is with her, working for good.

When the disciples heard the words of Jesus, being steeped in the stories of the Hebrew prophets, they would have thought of Jeremiah. Five hundred years before he had cried over the suffering as this very city was destroyed by the Babylonians. He lamented, “Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears so that I would weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!”[5] Jesus could see something happening that echoed Jeremiah’s time. His people were rejecting his teaching and the promise of a new work of God. Jesus had made clear a new way of faithful living, not of laws and regulations, but of love and solidarity. Love God, love your neighbor, seek peace, act for justice—these were the powerful ways of devotion that could change the heart and the community. Turn away from the anger, hate, and dreams of an earthly Kingdom to join the greatest revolution possible. In the Gospel’s words the people had failed to heed, “the things that make for peace!”[6]

Let’s imagine for a moment that Jesus is holding a press conference at the airport in your city. He has walked hundreds of miles across your state, talked to thousands, offered a vision of change, while facing vicious attacks in the media from faith leaders. As the cameras roll, he begins to cry. What is Jesus crying about now?

I think the answer is the same as it was on that ancient hillside. We have failed to listen to the things that make for peace. His tears would be about innocent civilians caught in a brutal war fomented by greed and lust for power. His sobs would reveal the pain of women suffering violence from the undeserved rage that spews from the partner who is afraid of losing control. His anguish would echo the dying cry of a transgendered woman, beaten in an African jail. His heavy shoulders would indict my surrender to a rampant materialism that rapes the planet and promotes poverty.

Our choices make a difference today just as in the day of Jesus. Luke puts a warning three times in the Gospel something bad was coming. Jesus said it in this moment of truth,

“The days will come upon you 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 within you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”[7]

The Jewish War of 66 – 72 CE started in response to Roman greed, religious persecution, and oppressive fiscal policies. Early victories by Jewish zealots turned to horrendous loss of life under the vast superiority of Roman legions. By the time the siege of Jerusalem was over more than a million people were dead and the great Temple a smoking ruin. The author may have known people who died and a few who survived, scattered and homeless, a fate that would last for centuries.[8] 

It’s important to note that Jesus does not say the potential calamity was God’s punishment. Instead, the destruction came from the choice of violent resistance, rejecting the practical way of Jesus in right living. God didn’t punish the people through this war but had sought through Jesus to offer a better way away from the path of hate and destruction.

I believe the same is true today. Our choices have consequences, so God is at work drawing us to seek shalom, abundance, and peace. The Divine calls us to collaborate with the prodding of our conscience, the good laws of the land, or the voices of prophets raised against injustice. We can listen to the hurting to give out empathy and support. Prayer unites our energy with God and energizes us to action change. The tears of Jesus are a warning and an invitation to lean forward for God’s work now.

At this Easter season of 2024, we can see many collaborating with God for a better path. American leaders are pressing for a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Protestors raise voices of help for the suffering. Ministers lead us to transformation through study, devotion, and action. Even some politicians urge us to live out the laws that “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice…and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”[9]

An Israeli woman, Yael Admi, and a Palestinian woman, Reem Hajajreh, hold different faiths but a common goal of peaceful coexistence. They have worked for years mobilizing women in their communities to advocate for peace. They led in the Mother’s Call declaration, a joint effort to end the hate and conflict. Now nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, their work is growing stronger as the world sees the uselessness of military actions. “We will no longer take a backseat,” they courageously declared.[10]

Your tears and mine connect us as human beings in a powerful way. Why was Jesus crying? The tears of Jesus call us to seek his way of life in the modern world. We can join the ongoing work of God for the well-being of our own heart and the world. May your Easter be alive with the path of peace.


[1] Jonathan Lipnick, “The Spot From Which The Lord Wept.” Israel Institute of Biblical Studies. https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/holy-land-studies/dominus-flevit/

 

[2] Sophie Putka, “Humans Are the Only Animals That Cry — And We Don’t Know Why.” Discover Magazine, August 19, 2021. https://www.discovermagazine.com/health/humans-are-the-only-animals-that-cry-and-we-dont-know-why

 

[3] John Nolland, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol 35a, Luke 1-9:20. Word Books, 1989.

[4] Richard Rice, “Biblical Support for a new perspective,” in The Openness of God. Intervarsity Press, 1994.

[5] Jeremiah 9:1 NRSVUE

[6] Luke 19:42

[7] Luke 19:43-44

[8] “Ancient Jewish History- The Great Revolt.” Jewish Virtual Library. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-great-revolt-66-70-ce

[9] “We the People,” National Constitution Center. https://constitutioncenter.org/the-constitution/preamble

[10] Yasmeen Serhan, “Reem Hajajreh and Yael Admi: A share call for peace.” TIME, March 11, 2024

Photo by Aleksandar Todorovic on shutterstock

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