They haunt me and they hurt me each time that I read them. For even while I know all about their setting and their original application–as a plaintive lament over the ruined conditions of Jerusalem following its destruction in 586 B.C.–I can’t help but wonder if the writer of those ancient words spoke of things He did not know.
Oh, I understand that this is a complex literary work indeed, with intricately constructed acroustic poems following the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which may or may not have been written by Jeremiah. (The Septuagint version says that they were, but the Hebrew Masoretic text does not.) Likewise, I am painfully aware of the many dangers that come if we take a scripture out of its proper context.
Still, whenever I come across these few verses in the Old Testament my mind is drawn inexorably to the pivotal moment in the New. For could it be that the prophet, glancing about his collapsing society, was also speaking of the Messiah as well when he asked the question that has reverberated down through the centuries:
“Is it nothing to you, all who pass by? Look around and see: is any suffering like my suffering?”
For in truth, was any suffering like His suffering? Was there ever such a travesty of judgment in all of human history–such a colossal miscarriage of justice–such a stupendous and patently unwarranted waste of human life–as in what took place on the eve of Passover long ago?
And yet, so the record tells us, not only was there no mass protest over the verdict that day, no riots in the streets or town square, the vast majority of those who witnessed the immediate execution indeed simply passed right by, with some of them hurling their insults as they went.
“He saved others… let him save himself now.”
And what a curiously ironic thing that was for them to say. For Jesus indeed saved others…from the discomfort of disease…from the anguish of mental illness…from the tragedies of losing a loved one…and even from themselves and their own sin. So clearly, He could have saved Himself had He chosen to do such.
But Jesus understood that the seriousness of our situation called for the kind of ultimate solution that only His death would provide. And so, in the unaltered words of an old spiritual that others have tried to modify to mollify our theological sensitivities, “When I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown, Christ laid aside His crown for my soul.”
The tragedy, of course, is that the vast majority of those who passed by that day did not see it. But I have to wonder just how many who pass by our churches on this day won’t see it either.
A preacher of another era, G.A. Studdert-Kennedy, once put it this way:
When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged Him on a tree. They drove great nails through hands and feet and made a Calvary. They crowned Him with a crown of thorns; red were His wounds and deep, For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.
When Jesus came to our town, they simply passed Him by. They never hurt a hair of Him; they only let Him die. For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain. They only just passed down the street and left Him in the rain.
So is it really nothing to all you who pass by?
I don’t think it’s that the people that passed by were apathetic, not caring. Some might have been, but more likely it’s a case of the Bystander Effect. Using that as the baseline, there are a wide variety of reasons no one did something: fear of harm to self, social norms (why isn’t anyone else doing something), lack of responsibility (someone else should be responsible for acting, not me), lack of believing other people will join in and thus strength in numbers, etc. Similarly we could ask why someone, who loved their Jewish neighbor dearly, didn’t do anything when they saw their neighbor drug into the streets and beaten for no reason by the Nazis. We all agree that morally they should have done something, but doing something at that moment would mean almost certain encampment or death. I have a feeling bystanders in Jesus’ time faced a similar no-win decision.
Obviously there were resistance movements in the Nazi era as I’m sure there were in Jesus’ day and THANK GOD for those brave people, but the example above serves as a good example of the on-the-spot decision crisis.
The “he saved others…let him save himself now” signals to me the still disbelieving nature of some during that time. How often do we put God to the test? Even though we are repeatedly told not to.
To some, it may be really nothing when they pass by, but to others, the gravity of the situation may render a level of helplessness that we need to overcome.
I believe it still matters. In fact, it is the most important thing for our broken and sin-sick world. But unfortunately, the devil is real and has blinded many, many people to the help that is available to them. Thank you for your very meaningful words especially at this Holy Week celebration. May God bless you as you transition into a new ministry field.