As we enter the Lenten season, our hearts turn to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ last week leading up to his crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. A common way this season has been preached is to offer a series on the “Seven Last Words of Christ.” This is based on a compilation of seven utterances of Jesus from the cross that are recorded in the four Gospels.
All seven of these are rich with meaning and have theological implications for us. Perhaps the most puzzling one, though, is “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What are we to make of this. Is it a question, an accusation, or something else?
This statement, recorded in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34, has caused misunderstanding from the day it was uttered. At the time, it was misunderstood by those present at the cross. This is because Jesus made this statement in either the Hebrew language (Matthew’s version) or in the Aramaic language (Mark’s version). Therefore, the word translated “My God” was either “Eli” (Matthew) or the very similar “Eloi” (Mark). Which one was actually spoken by Jesus doesn’t really matter, but in either case, part of the crowd at the cross thought Jesus was crying for Elijah, the greatest of the Hebrew prophets. The tradition about Elijah was that he never died, but was taken into heaven in a fiery chariot while still living. Perhaps those at the cross imagined that Jesus was calling for Elijah to return in this flaming craft and take him away in a similar fashion. No doubt Jesus’ physical condition contributed to this, making his speech thick and difficult to understand. Both Matthew and Mark include this in their narrative as a tragically comic detail to show us how utterly alone and misunderstood Jesus was, even as he was dying.
It is the modern misunderstanding, however, that becomes a theological mistake for me. Rather than focus on the story as told by Matthew and Mark, some have mined this statement for its theological implications. In this endeavor, the statement has been seen as either a questioning accusation or an accusing question. The statement is taken literally. If Jesus accuses God of abandoning him, we must assume that God has, in fact, abandoned him. Having settled this in our minds, we can turn to our own question, “Why would God abandon Jesus on the cross?” Since neither Matthew nor Mark give us an answer to this question, we fall back on a systematic theological answer: God abandoned Jesus because it was at this moment that he took on the sins of the world. Since God is holy, he must turn his back on Jesus, because he cannot look upon sin (or he must separate himself from sin).
I object to this theory, which to me is nonsensical and borders on blasphemy. Let me give you four reasons. First, if this were the case, why didn’t Matthew or Mark give us this information? They are not shy about inserting theological commentary in their narratives (especially Matthew). Second, God can do anything he wants to do. For us to decide that he must turn his back on Jesus because of some sort of theological construct we have erected is not a wise move. Third, I cannot even begin to discuss the damage this does to the doctrine of the Trinity. If God the Father truly separated himself from God the Son, I don’t see how the charge of bitheism or ditheism does not apply. Either that or we must consider that somehow Jesus was drained of his divinity at this point, a sort of delayed or secondary Arianism. Fourth, I cannot escape from asking this question: If God turned his back on his Son because of sin, why would he not turn his back on me because of my sin?
So what are we to make of this statement of Jesus from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Just this: Jesus is quoting Scripture. Specifically, he is quoting Psalm 22, King David’s anguished cry to God at a time of great distress. If you read this psalm you will see that David’s opening cry is an expression of distress, a cry to God for help. Yet he addresses God throughout the psalm, and not as if he is talking to a turned back or a brick wall. David’s strong words to begin this psalm do not mean that God has, in reality, abandoned him.
Jesus is not teaching us that God had abandoned him. He is crying out to his Father in great distress, and he is using Scripture for this purpose. In some ways we see Jesus in a very human way here. This is not doubt and it certainly is not sin. As the Psalms teach us, it is OK to cry a prayer to God like this when we have in a rough period of life. It is OK to ask God, “Why?” And it is OK to want God to come to our aid.
BTW: If you would like to hear my sermon on this, try the following links:
iTunes version, it will be sermon #66.