And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, rebuke your disciples."
He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out." (Luke 19:37-40)
“The very stones would cry out.” So Jesus chastises the Pharisees who wish to quiet the jubilant crowds.
Ever since I was a child in Sunday School, I always took this to mean simply that creation itself gives God praise. That even if the people were silent, the very trees and rocks would give testimony to Jesus. As a child I suppose I imagined this literally – rocks splitting open and gravelly voices giving grating “Hosannah's.” That image didn't survive, but my instinctive reading did.
Jesus in these verses, though, is picking up the language of Habakkuk 2:11. “For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond.” This is not picturing the rocks of the field given voice – it is the worked stone of a house. A particular kind of house, in fact - “Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house,” (Habakkuk 2:9a) the prophet says. “Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity!” (Habakkuk 2:12) The stones in this image are not cheerfully singing – they are screaming in outrage at injustice.
Jesus is not saying here that creation in its goodness calls out in praise. By invoking Habakkuk, what Jesus is saying is that creation in its brokenness calls out in longing. The world testifies to Christ not simply in its glory, but also in its agony. The shadows as much as the light are evidence of the sun.
We all have a sense that the world should be a certain way. That people should be kind to each other. That societies should be just. That nations should be at peace. When things aren't that way, we react with shock and surprise.
Where does that come from?
It certainly doesn't come from experience. Where are the days when we don't see or hear unkindness in the world around us? At what point in our history has society been truly just? Peace is fleeting, and even when we have it, why is it that we all instinctively feel it teetering on the edge of the knife, ready to fall with one misstep back into conflict? Is it really natural when it is the result not of magnanimity but of mutually assured destruction?
If I was to take my experiences and draw conclusions from them about how the world should be, I would not imagine a place of kindness and justice and peace. I would arrive at a place of cynicism, where the surprising thing is the goodness in the world, and even that is regarded with suspicion.
Inasmuch as we long for a better world, that is an argument for the Christian hope. Christianity claims both that this world should be a certain way – that God made it with purpose and intention – and that, in its current form, it isn't that way. Things are not as they are meant to be; creation is crying out in pain at the indignity of this age.
So Jesus is telling the Pharisees that the stones themselves are crying out for God's salvation. And, in saying it, Jesus is also claiming to be that coming hope.
In the midst of his imagery of the screaming house and the bloody city, Habakkuk interjects this note of ultimate hope. “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Habakkuk 2:14) The thing the stones are crying out for will come. In spite of the evil, God's light will wash across the world like an ocean and all that is dark will be undone.
Jesus knows that promise of hope, and it is ultimately what He is claiming for Himself. When the crowds cry, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest,” (Luke 19:38b) they are longing for that ocean of the knowledge of God's glory to wash over them. By affirming their cry, Jesus is saying that it is spilling forth in Him.
Christianity speaks to both our hurt in the face of this world and our hope that something better will come. It acknowledges that people are cruel and oppressors are powerful and peace teeters ever on the brink. It says to that “Yes.” But it follows that “Yes” with a “however.”
The darkness is real, but not eternal. The stones are screaming, but they will be answered. God has entered the world. God is beginning to restore it. And God will, in the end, finish that work of restoration. He is creating a world that is all that we sense this world should be. He will bring that world, and even more.