A man was visiting a retirement community with his friend. As they walked past a meeting room, they could see a group of seniors gathered in a circle, enjoying each other’s company. One person would call out a number, and everyone would laugh. Then another person would call out another number, and again, the group would laugh.
This happened repeatedly until one gentleman called out “Thirty-seven!” The room remained awkwardly silent for a few moments. Then another number was called and the merriment resumed.
“What was that all about?” the man asked his friend.
“Oh, that,” he replied. “These folks have told each other the same old jokes over and over again — so many times that they decided to number them. Now all they have to do is say the number.”
“But what about the guy who shouted out ‘thirty-seven’? Why didn’t anyone laugh?”
“Him? That’s Tony. Poor Tony never could tell a joke.”
Perhaps you’ve heard that one before, or some version of it? If so, you already knew the punchline, where the story was headed.
Then imagine with me, if you will, that when Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” — a direct quotation of the first words of Psalm 22 — it was akin to calling out “Twenty-two!” His anguish was real, and the words fitting. But the words stand in for the whole psalm, a well-known bit of liturgy that led worshippers back and forth between despair and hope, and finally, to an all-encompassing vision of praise.
Across the four gospels, the stories of Jesus’ suffering during Holy Week make several references to the Old Testament. And no text is alluded to more often than Psalm 22. Indeed, it’s nearly impossible for a Christian to read that Psalm without thinking about Jesus’ crucifixion. We read the psalm, in other words, through the lenses of the gospels, and take the psalm as messianic prophecy.
True enough. But here’s the other side: for many who first heard or read the gospels after they were written, Psalm 22 was the text they already knew — the song they had sung in worship, the words they had prayed. Their inclination would not have been simply to read the psalm in terms of the story of Jesus, but to read the story of Jesus in terms of the psalm.
Read Psalm 22. Think of it not as a page ripped from the psalmist’s personal diary, but as a piece written for the purpose of corporate worship. Suffering — physical, psychological, and spiritual — is described in graphic but general terms. At the core is the sense that trouble is near, but God is far away. Three times the psalmist cries out in anguish (vss. 1-2; 6-8; 12-18), and the cries become more intense, until death itself seems imminent.
But each time, the lament is answered by a more hopeful movement, as the psalmist clings to the stories and memories of God’s past faithfulness. God is declared to be or portrayed as holy (vs. 3), a trustworthy deliverer (vss. 4-5), a father (vs.. 9-10), and the psalmist’s strength (vs. 19).
And then, suddenly, the psalmist shifts to praise:
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him. (vss. 22-24, NRSV)
God has answered. The psalmist has been delivered and sings God’s praises to the faithful. Like ripples in a pond, the praise moves outward, from the individual’s worship to the congregation’s, to all the nations (vss. 27-28), and even to future generations (vss. 30-31). No one is excluded from the reach of the psalmist’s praise.
What does that mean for us?
Because Jesus, as the one who bore our humanity on the cross, called out this psalm, we are invited to participate in it ourselves– in all our suffering and desperation, our loneliness, our struggle to remember and believe in God’s trustworthiness. It’s not simply about believing that God will rescue us in some particular way that we wish, but remembering that we are part of the ongoing story of the God who does indeed hear the cries of the afflicted.
And just as important: this memory must be communal. The worshipping community is the repository of the memory, the steward of the stories. Individuals may feel isolated and alone in their anguish. They need to know that there is a community of the faithful who can bear that anguish even while encouraging hope. And when the sufferer is finally able to praise, that praise should encourage the community in turn.
“Twenty-two!” May our imaginations be so shaped by the psalm that we are able to find hope even as we bear our own crosses.