There is this story in Luke 23 where Jesus, on his way to Calvary, encountered a group of women who were weeping for him. Jesus was a sorry sight; hungry and possibly not taken a bath for the past 24 hours, had also been scourged, mocked, spat on, had a crown of thorns and carrying a heavy cross, but he turned to the weeping women and asked them not to weep for him but instead to weep for themselves and their children “For the time will come when you will say, “Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!”” Luke 23:29
Wait! Did He just say that? I can imagine the shock and disbelieve on the faces of these women. “How insensitive? What a thankless fellow, this man is!” they may have asked among themselves. Did Jesus bless barrenness?
Barrenness is a violation of God’s original plan for man since right from the creation time, He commanded man to be fruitful and fill the earth. Barrenness is against the promise in Deuteronomy 28:11 “The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity – in the fruit of your womb…”
It would therefore be inconceivable how Jesus would imply that at any one point in time, barrenness would be preferable to fertility. A fruitless love may actually be seen as the devil’s mockery of the Creator’s gift to the creature.
It is a difficult task trying to understand this verse using the three-pronged bible-study formula of what did the text mean at that time and to whoever it was intended? What does it mean in the modern world? And how does it apply to my life?
So what did the text mean then? Bible interpreters and commentators are in agreement that Jesus’ message to the women was a prophecy of what would befall Jerusalem later in AD 70 during the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. Jesus’ prophesy in Matthew 24:19 “how dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!” contextualises the message to the lamenting women. It’s clear that His seeming insensitivity is not the absence of love, but the deepest expression of it.
And what does the text mean now? Well, no idea, but could the following be among the possible meanings?
- In our highly competitive and capitalistic world, would the poor and those of limited means represent the barren? The poor have been made to suffer the humiliation of indecent housing, poor sanitation, and malnutrition and this compares to the humiliation suffered by the barren. Despite their deplorable living conditions, a number of studies, including by Gallup, have shown that the poor nations are the happiest although the UN’s happiest reports have a completely different result. In addition, other studies such as the one by Oishi and Diener have concluded that although life satisfaction was substantially higher in wealthy nations than in poor nations, meaning in life was higher in poor nations than in wealthy nations. Can this verse be applied to challenge (encourage?) the poor to focus on a kingdom beyond what they can see and touch, since Jesus offers something more bigger and better than what the world offers? Could Jesus, the Restorer of what is broken, be calling the poor to focus beyond their present troubles in order to find healing?
- In the pro-life and pro-choice debates, pro-lifers have argued that right from the biblical days and up until recently, barrenness and sterility have been considered a curse but there has been a dramatic shift in attitudes towards children who are now seen more as a burden not a blessing. It is argued that the days are here when the biggest danger is the possibility of conceiving or getting too many children. One writer paraphrased it as follows ““Women of Jerusalem, do not weep for me but weep for your descendants. For the days are coming when people will actually say blessed are the barren. The days are actually coming when people will prefer not to have children or to have as few as possible. The days are actually coming when expectant children will be aborted and the capacity to do this will be called a right, where women with difficult situations will be taken to abortionists and those who bring them will think they are doing something good.” Is the message of Luke 23:29 applicable in this pro-life and pro-choice debate?
And what does the gospel text portend to me as an individual? I find the gospel message pointing towards a day of hardships and trials akin the suffering and pain of childlessness. It might be hard for us to conceive of that possibility now, but we are reminded that whatever the circumstances in our life we should always trust that God’s plans for us are perfect. He knows better than we do what is best for us.
We are reminded of the story of Joseph son of Jacob. When he was sold to Egypt by his brothers and later sent to jail on trumped-up charges, his life appeared completely messed up. However, in the background God was preparing Joseph for a higher call as a prime Minister, a role which saw him save not just the government and the people of the country which unjustly jailed him, but also the whole of his father’s household including his brothers, who sold him, and their dependents.
Another example from the Gospel is Jesus’ passion and death for the sake of man’s salvation. As was noted above, Jesus was a sad sight and as Isaiah described Him “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.” Is 53:2-3.
Isaiah goes further to ask “Seized and condemned, he was taken away. Who would have thought any more of his destiny?” Is 53:8.
This was a perfect representation of the feeling of all those who were with Jesus at His crucifixion.
During his passion, Jesus’ cross was a sign on defeat, humiliation and a symbol of the ultimate conquering of the evil over good. Although human beings, including Jesus’ disciples, may have given up on Him being the Christ, God was not done just yet.
Three days later, upon His resurrection, the role of the cross was reversed and it became a sign of victory and a representation of the triumph of life over death and good over evil.
It is evident that we might find ourselves in circumstances of barrenness in which it might appear as if nothing is happening in our lives or as if our life is not worth living any more. For such moments, we called to remember that God could be doing a lot in the background and we should wait upon Him for his timing is best.
Our barren circumstances may be represented by periods of extreme suffering due to illnesses, rejection, financial distress, strained relationships or even actual incidences of childlessness. We are called to wait upon the Lord for our moment of salvation is coming and even though the salvation may not come in the exact nature or form we expect, we should always be pray for the will of God to be done in our lives. We should love God in all the circumstances since it is better to love the gift giver more than the gift.