Matthew 23: 37-39 Lament over Jerusalem

Image from http://www.thiscontemplativelife.org/2018/03/lament-over-jerusalem-free-prayer.html

Matthew 23: 37-39

Parallel Luke 13: 34-35

 37 “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! 38 See, your house is left to you, desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

The focus shifts from the religious leaders to the city of Jerusalem in this brief lament for the city. This passage has received renewed attention from feminist readers who have pointed out that here the traditional image of being sheltered under God’s wings is now set within a female metaphor for Jesus doing a traditionally feminine task of mourning. This brief, poignant image which mourns for a people and city which have been led astray and have rejected the messengers of God and have resisted God’s continual desire to gather the people together only to find themselves lost in the wilderness and homeless. The loss of Jerusalem, the loss of the temple and the loss of the land have occurred before in Israel’s story (under the Babylonian empire for Judah, under the Assyrians for the northern kingdom of Israel) and these focal portions of their identity were shattered. If Matthew’s community is hearing this in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome, they (and other Jewish communities) are probably trying to make sense of the destruction while they seek the peace of the city they find themselves within.

The image of God’s wings as a refuge is used frequently in the Hebrew Scripture[1] but the image of God is frequently described using masculine metaphors. That Jesus uses a feminine metaphor to describe his desire to gather together the people of Jerusalem is not unique, but it is noteworthy. Instead of an eagle or hawk, a bird often associated with strength, now Jesus casts himself as the anxious mother hen trying to gather her young birds together and shelter them. The Apocryphal work 4 Esdras 1:30 also uses an identical image when referencing the Lord Almighty, and although 4 Esdras may be later than Matthew’s gospel they both capture the desire of God or Jesus to shelter God’s people. From the beginning of Matthew’s gospel part of Jesus’ vocation has been to save his people from their sins (1:20) but here the very people he desires to rescue resist that saving.

The house becomes a wilderness[2] and in the aftermath of the Jewish War many people who considered Jerusalem either their physical or spiritual home find themselves homeless and having to make their peace in whatever city they now make their life. The previous exile was a time where the people of Israel had to rediscover what it meant to be the people of God without the promised land, a Davidic king, the city of Jerusalem and the temple. In the previous exile the written scriptures became central to their new identity. For these followers of Jesus, they have now centered their identity on Jesus as the writing of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry become attempts to reorient their identity around a new center in a new land. Jesus is the awaited Davidic king, but he is a crucified messiah, Jesus is greater than the temple and will be with these disciples where two or three are gathered, and this people who may be homeless now await for the day when they can proclaim with all creation “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” at the arrival of their new home when the kingdom of heaven comes. They live oriented towards a hope that can move them beyond their lament because even in their desolation their Lord desires to gather them together like a mother gathers her children or a hen gathers her brood.


[1] Exodus 19:4, Ruth 2:12, Psalm 17:8, 36:7, 57:1, 61:4, 63:7, 91:4

[2] The Greek eremos means wilderness, desert and can have the connotation of being abandoned/desolate as most translations render.

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