Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Holy Week, Day Four: The Last Words of Jesus

And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

I know a man who, as a teenager, was arrested along with two friends for minor drug possession. The judge gave the parents a choice: The boys could spend three months in the county jail, or receive probation and be turned over to the parents. The parents got together and agreed that some jail time would serve as an excellent lesson to their wayward sons. During their time in jail, one of the boys was horribly abused by some seasoned criminals. He suffered a mental breakdown and never fully recovered from the experience. Lesson learned.

The idea of being forsaken by one’s parents is painful. Parents are supposed to be primary caregivers, and to abandon a child—especially when that child is in desperate need—is an offense to most people. The idea of God abandoning Jesus at his greatest time of need is a nightmare. After all, if God would do that to Jesus, would he also do it to us?

There are theories about what is really going on when Jesus cries out, agonizing over being abandoned by God. One is that the divine part of Jesus is extracted so that the human part fully suffers. Another is that God needs an innocent, perfect person to suffer and die in the place of the human race, and he turns his back on Jesus so that his anger can be fully satisfied. There are other theories as well.

Jesus, however, is not crying out simply from his own place of pain, uttering words that are his own. He is quoting from the Hebrew scriptures, speaking the words of a text that would have been familiar to the Jewish people gathered at his execution:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
 Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? 
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
 and by night, but find no rest. (Psalm 22:1-2)

Perhaps the rest of the Psalm would echo through the minds of the people on that day, as the psalmist describes agonies that correspond to the pain suffered by one being crucified:

All who see me mock at me;
 they make mouths at me, they shake their heads. . . I am poured out like water,
 and all my bones are out of joint;
 my heart is like wax;
 it is melted within my breast; 
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
 and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
 you lay me in the dust of death. For dogs are all around me;
 a company of evildoers encircles me.
 My hands and feet have shriveled; 
I can count all my bones.
 They stare and gloat over me; 
they divide my clothes among themselves,
 and for my clothing they cast lots. (Psalm 22:7, 14-18)

In the last words of Jesus, words that sound desolate and alone, the agony of Israel in exile is mirrored. Yes, there is a prophetic ring to the Psalm as Jesus enacts the descriptions of suffering that the psalmist so strikingly describes. But there is something else happening as well: In his suffering, Jesus is fully identifying with Israel’s sense of abandonment. Israel continues to ask when they will be liberated from foreign powers, and Jesus takes that cry into himself.

God, in Jesus, has not left the scene of suffering, turning his back impassively, waiting for his wrath to be assuaged. God is fully present in Jesus, indentifying to the point of death with Israel’s condition—and, ultimately, the condition of the entire world.

And, in our condition, God continues to identify and share our pain, fully identifying his life with ours.

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