As Matthew narrates the Passion, we see Jesus mocked and beaten by a company of Roman soldiers, then forced to trudge his way to Golgotha, then crucified, with people hurling blasphemous insults at him as he hung suspended above the earth. Through it all, we get not a single word of response from Jesus.
Then, after three mysterious hours of darkness, this sudden breach of silence:
Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). (Matt 27:46, NIV)
Jesus, in his familiar language of Aramaic, calls out in the apparent anguish of abandonment. This is a man who had been viciously heckled for claiming an intimate relationship with his Father. But as he bore the sins of humanity on the cross, there came a moment in which the Father, in holy rejection of sin, left his beloved Son bereft and utterly alone.
Disconcerted by that thought, some suggest that Jesus was mistaken; God didn’t really abandon him! But as New Testament scholar Leon Morris suggests, isn’t it just a teensy bit arrogant to think that we know better than Jesus what the state of his relationship to his Father was?
Nor will it do, I think, to suppose that when Jesus quoted Psalm 22 in this way, what he “really meant” was to proclaim the same triumphant trust with which the psalm ends. I agree that we need to consider the narrative arc of the entire psalm. But to me, it stretches credibility to imagine either that Jesus was sending a coded message, or that he recited the whole psalm while dying of asphyxiation.
Jesus’ agony–physical and spiritual–was real. But of what significance is it that he didn’t just cry out random words of anguish, but the words of the psalmist?
As I’ve suggested in an earlier post, if one were to think of the life of faith as a musical, the Psalms would have to be part of the soundtrack. Sociologists like to think of certain items as both products and producers of culture: an iPhone or iPad is not merely the practical result of our technological hunger but itself an instrument that changes how we live and interact. The same could be said of the Psalms, and indeed, worship songs in general: they not only reflect the stories and beliefs of a group, but serve to maintain that shared culture through their ritual use in community.
Here’s what we don’t know, and can only imagine: how many times did Jesus sing or recite Psalm 22 as a boy? To what extent did those words become part of his own self-understanding as he grew? But here’s what we do know: in his ministry, Jesus regularly and naturally quoted the Psalms. This was not a matter of sitting people down for Bible study; the Psalms seemed to form an organic part of his vocabulary and way of thinking.
Does it seem at all odd that Jesus spouted Scripture at such an agonizing moment? Then perhaps we should remember, first, that this was not a religious affectation on his part but a deeply personal habit. And second, we might wonder to what extent the sense of oddness stems from the fact that it is not our habit to do so, that the Scripture is not an automatic part of how we perceive and imagine the world and our place in it.
In other words, when I suggest that Jesus “naturally” quoted the Psalms, I don’t mean that he would actually have thought of himself as “quoting” anything, at least not the way we would understand it. On the cross, he was not looking for particularly pious words to express his emotions, nor sending a coded message of triumph.
Rather, I imagine him as doing what the people of God had always needed to do: he was entrusting himself to the story, and to the God behind the story, the God who does not despise the suffering of the lowly. In this way, Jesus’ cry of dereliction was both an authentic expression of deep suffering and an act of faith rather than faithlessness.
And if, during this season of Lent, we find ourselves confronted by our own sense of having been abandoned by God, perhaps we too will be able to entrust ourselves to the unfinished story that is still being written, by a God whose gracious and compassionate character has already been made known.
Even when we can’t see it.