Abandoned by God, part 1

My God, my God, why have you left me? —Jesus (Matt 27:46, CEB)

Many of us have probably heard sermon series based on the words Jesus spoke from the cross.  The gospel of John records several short utterances; Luke even includes a brief exchange between Jesus and one of the men being crucified at his side.

But Mark and Matthew have only the single heart-piercing cry above, a stark and painful contrast to a life lived in confident intimacy with the Father.  It’s the opening line of Psalm 22, in which the psalmist pours out his pain and confusion to a seemingly absent God:

My God! My God, why have you left me all alone?  Why are you so far from saving me—so far from my anguished groans?  My God, I cry out during the day, but you don’t answer; even at nighttime I don’t stop. (Ps 22:1-2, CEB)

As suggested in a previous post, Jesus’ own understanding of his identity and his mission was given shape by sacred texts like the Psalms and Isaiah, and the same could probably be said of the early church’s understanding of Jesus.  It’s impossible to read Psalm 22 without being struck by the many parallels to the crucifixion narrative–especially since Jesus himself cried its first line from the cross.  But what did he mean by doing so?

Some are sufficiently scandalized by this seeming outburst to suppose that Jesus must have quoted the entire psalm, which turns from desperation to praise near the end: “He listened when I cried out to him for help.  I offer praise in the great congregation because of you” (vs. 24-25, CEB).  Thus Jesus wasn’t actually complaining, but making a declaration of trust.  A softer version would be to suggest that Jesus meant the entire psalm, quoting only its first line as representative of the whole.

Possibly.  But are we compelled to read it that way because we can’t imagine Jesus having an apparent moment of weakness, or worse, faithlessness?  We prefer the portrait given to us in the Fourth Gospel.  There’s no struggle in Gethsemane.  There’s no plaintive cry of dereliction.  Throughout the passion narrative, Jesus seems large and in charge, calmly taking care of business, right down to making living arrangements for his mother as he hung from the cross.

We are not, of course, being given an either-or choice between this Jesus and that, but a stereoscopic both-and that embraces the fullness of his humanity.  I suspect that many Christians who have suffered doubt resonate with the cry of Jesus and the psalmist.  The question is whether we do so in a way that honors the depth and meaning of the cry itself.

More on that in the next post.