Anonymous Dutch artist (c 1400)
At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" (which means "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"). (Mark 33-34)
This past Good Friday, I was invited to be part of a noon - 3:00 p.m. ecumenical service of meditations on the "Seven Last Words of Christ." Mine was the fourth "word": "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" I had requested that portion as I thought I might have something worth saying on this text.
(Although I slightly butchered the Aramaic — after much practice and thinking I had the pronunciation down-pat — my meditation seemed to go well. At least a few kind folks told me it was meaningful. Friday morning, after reading Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson's column — What Good Friday Teaches Us About Cynicism – I thought about substituting it as my meditation. It's quite meaningful and a link is in the Resources below.)
These painful words of Jesus from the cross are, for me at least, quite comforting. I, and I suppose like many, have felt abandoned at times — even by God. It seems good to know that even Jesus felt that way at the third hour during his agony.
But, this Reflection is not really about these words of Jesus from the cross. It's about what I learned that some Christians and biblical scholars make of Jesus' cry, "Why have you forsaken me?"
As my usual practice when writing these Reflections, I try to find what theologians and scholars have to say on the topic. Regarding this cry of Jesus, most agree that he was crying the opening words of Psalm 22, "My God my God, why have you forsaken me? and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?" (The Psalter)
And this makes sense to me. Jesus, as a devout Jew would have been steeped in the psalms. Probably many times, the words of the psalms had come into his consciousness. Much like for us in a time of trial, the words, "The Lord is my shepherd", might form on our lips. Or the words of a favorite hymn: "I need thee every hour;" or "Precious Lord, take my hand." It seems obvious that those words from Psalm 22 might form his cry coming from his anguish: "Why have you forsaken me?"
But, many don't seem to let it stand simply with the scripture's (Jesus') words. Some scholars go further and suggest that although Jesus cried only the first lines of the psalm, he most likely was thinking of the whole psalm. Which if you read it, (like many of the psalms) those cries of abandonment turn into words of hope and steadfast love and support. These scholars say that Jesus really didn't feel totally forsaken when he cried those words. He was fully aware of the psalm's words that follow — words of hope. No, these scholars say that Jesus didn't really feel forsaken; he just didn't cry the rest of the psalm.
One scholar went as far as to say that Jesus chose those words because he knew that, after hearing him cry, many would go home from the cross and read the entire psalm and thus receive the full message of hope. Kind of like when Jesus was in Gethsemane's garden, between praying and sweating drops of blood, Jesus was also working on the sermon he would give the next day from the cross.
I may be a bit more cynical about these "scholars" than I should be; but, c'mon ... can't you just take Jesus' words for what they actually say? "My God, why have you forsaken me?" Whether God had actually abandoned Jesus is a totally different question beyond the text; but, why do they think they have to preach that Jesus didn't really feel forsaken?
I realize I don't know the actual mindset of those with the alternative explanations, but I think their interpretation is because 'Jesus feeling forsaken' doesn't fit into their picture and understanding of the fully incarnate Jesus. The Jesus they understand (do I go too far by saying, "the Jesus they have created"?) could not have actually felt forsaken. If the words or facts don't fit my narrative, change — or add to them — so they are consistent with my narrative.
This reminds me of the gospel story where Jesus tells his disciples he must go to Jerusalem and suffer and be killed. Peter, hearing this, rebukes Jesus, saying "Never, Lord! ... This shall never happen to you!" Then Jesus' famous rebuff of Peter: "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me ..." (Matthew 21-23) Peter had his own preconceived vision of what the Messiah was going to be. When Jesus seemed to be saying things that didn't "fit", he felt strongly enough about his understanding to actually challenge Jesus' own understanding of his mission.
While we know that we will never totally understand Jesus until we meet him "on the other side," I think if we are trying to be followers of Jesus, we need to try to really understand his truth. And, often that involves seeing old pictures in a new light. I think too often we already have our picture of Jesus ... or God or any theological topic ... and force any new information to fit into our existing picture. I've been in some bible studies where the goal seemed to be to simply perpetuate the group's accepted frameworks/explanations rather than consider other possibilities. Anyone raising a perhaps contrary idea is quickly labeled a heretic ... or worse, "a progressive!"
If we are seekers of the truth, it seems that we should be open to the idea that our existing and long-held pictures may not be complete or always correct. Often when we consider our role in dialogue with others to be a means to get them to see the Jesus we have in our boxes of understanding, we should consider dialogue as possibly transforming our own view of what's in our boxes. "Jesus could never really feel abandoned by God ... or ... could he?"
One of my favorite authors, especially for escape-type reading, is the late Robert B. Parker and his series of Spenser private eye novels. Spenser often waxes philosophically, usually in the company of his partner Hawk or girlfriend Susan Silverman. In his novel School Days, Spenser was trying to figure out the truth about a complex situation. He opined, "Somebody said once that you probably can't figure out the truth, if you think you know ahead of time what the truth is supposed to be."School Days, Robert B. Parker, page 85. Parker is famous for his terse, rapid-fire dialogue. Here, I think in Spenser's few words, he is saying what I'm trying to say in this long Reflection.
As anyone who has followed these Reflections knows, I am a proponent of biblical scholarship, and often find it quite helpful to understand the historical context of bible passages and personalities. Knowing the original Greek or Aramaic meaning of words in a passage may give a whole new and meaningful slant on something difficult to understand. I like to speculate what might have been in a bible story that was not part of the written record. "What might Jesus and the disciples talked about around the evening campfire after Jesus' first casting out of a demon?"
In my Friday men's breakfast group we often do such meaning-seeking and speculation. When it seems we may be stretching our speculation a bit too much or reading a lot into the text, someone usually reminds us of the words of our deceased but still spiritual leader, Dave Bellis: "Boys, boys," he would caution, "we may be going a bit too far afield! Remember, speculation is still just speculation." Dave's words ring so true. We should try to find meaning ... and doing so might involve going beyond the written text. But we may be too far afield when what we find is the meaning we hoped to find. Are we willing to even consider a meaning that seems troublesome? One that doesn't "fit"?
In searching for truth and meaning, we have to be ready to deal with reality. If I view Jesus as the ultimate pacifist, what do I do with the story of Jesus taking a whip to the money changers in the temple? Or when Jesus says he came not to bring peace but a sword? If I view Jesus as a strong proponent of solid family values, what do I do about "I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother ..."? When the preacher says that looking at the world around us, it's obvious that we are in the "end times," how do we handle his supposed insight compared Jesus' own words: "But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father"?
Perhaps part of our searching-for-truth problems have to do with our need for explanations, our need for certainty, our need to have our lives and beliefs fit into neat, consistent packages. When reality makes doing that difficult, we create explanations that fit our desired understandings; we stand firm and certain on our created views, and therefore twist and scrunch beliefs to fit into our tidy packages. But frankly, I don't know how one can be an honest believer in and follower of Jesus without living with some ambiguity, with not having all the answers, without accepting some uncertainty ... without being able to say, "I really don't know."
And, maybe a key is to learning God's truth is not so much to work at learning ABOUT JESUS, but to follow Jesus and learn FROM JESUS. In following and learning from him, we can give up our need for certainty, for comfortable answers, for a nicely packaged belief system, and simply Let Jesus Be Jesus.