Here we come the central word spoken by Jesus from the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" I mean "central" in at least three senses. It comes fourth out of seven in the traditional ordering Jesus' last words, and so it is numerically central. It is the only word from the cross spoken in Matthew and Mark, and so it is the central word within its original literary context. And over the centuries heated debate has surrounded its meaning and significance, and so it is found at the center of controversy.
What are some of the different ways of interpreting this passage? Well, as I see it, there are a number of layers to the options. Certain options open up certain problems that need to be addressed. I will try to follow these lines out, at least with respect to the third main option.
First of all, there is the big question of how "literally" to take this statement of Jesus. Was Jesus really abandoned? Three basic options emerge.
First, one could say that Jesus was neither abandoned nor did he think he was. There are a number of ways to support this claim, but a common one is to note that Jesus is quoting the beginning of Psalm 22. The end of Psalm 22 contains a strong statement of confidence in God's salvation, so we have good reason to interpret Jesus' statement in the context of confidence. Jesus dies in full confidence that God will sort things out (e.g., raise him from the dead). Although some find this appeal to Psalm 22 to be a stretch, there is ample evidence that the New Testament writers were well aware of broader contexts and connotations that came with their quotations and allusions. However, the fact that Jesus says this with a "loud cry" must be taken seriously. Also, the fact that the bystanders heard it as a cry for help is not irrelevant (though they misunderstood to whom he was crying out).
Second, one could say that Jesus felt abandoned by God while in fact he was not. This mediating interpretation tries to take seriously Jesus' suffering while at the same time avoiding the troubling implication that God abandoned Jesus. God did not abandon Jesus, but was with him all along. God's purpose for Jesus was that he would taste God-abandonment, if only for a moment. The apocalyptic signs that immediately follow Jesus' death (the tearing of the veil, the opening of the graves, etc.) show that God has not abandoned him, but has acted decisively. Although there is something to be said for God's continued hidden presence with Christ, this distinction between "feeling" and "fact" may be difficult to sustain. Does this reduce talk of God-abandonment to a mere state of consciousness? Is Jesus' state of consciousness really the point? Does this really tell us anything about the meaning of Jesus' death?
Third, one could say that Jesus was in some sense abandoned by God. On the other end of the spectrum from the "veiled statement of confidence" reading above is that Jesus in this word reveals his God-abandonment. God for some reason has abandoned Jesus in some sense. This reading takes this word from the cross in its strongest sense, and has the distinct advantage of opening up avenues for reflection on the meaning of Jesus' death on the cross. However, this strong sense requires one answer a number of difficult follow-up questions, many of which may be simply avoided by going with one of the previous two options.
There are at least three follow-up questions that must be asked of those who take this third option. There are multiple possible answers to each of these questions, which I will only mention. Each of these lines of questioning help to fill out in what sense Jesus was abandoned by God.
First, one must ask, "By whom was Jesus abandoned?" Obviously, Jesus addresses his "God." But how should we take this? Should we just treat this as God in an unspecified sense? Or should we understand it to be the Father? Or should we claim, as some have, that Jesus' own divinity (the Logos/Son) abandoned him on the cross? I lean towards the second option (Father), because the first is theologically vacuous and the third creates a split in Jesus' personality. But those who take this second option have to account for the striking shift away from Jesus' usual "Father" language. I think that can be done without much trouble, because he is using the language of Psalm 22, and he's probably not feeling very familial to God the Father at this moment. But I have to admit that the answer to this question is not immediately obvious.
Second, one must ask, "To what was Jesus abandoned?" Was he abandoned to failure, in the sense God did not help him in his struggle against evil on the cross? Was he abandoned to death, in the sense that the Father did not join him in his sojourn among the dead? Was he abandoned to judgment, in the sense that God placed on him his wrath against sin? Was it some or all of these? Answering this question is connected with the thorny question of the "time" between Jesus' death and resurrection: What was he doing? Where was he? Can we even talk of the time, place and activity of the dead? What is the meaning and significance of his descent?
Third, one must ask, "For what reason was Jesus abandoned?" It is interesting to note that a literal rendering of Mark's Greek would read, "for what reason have you abandoned me?" and a literal rendering of Matthew's Greek would read, "to what purpose have you abandoned me?" If we take the content of Jesus' cry of dereliction seriously, then we must also take its interrogative form seriously too. It is a question. Perhaps it is a rhetorical question. But it may in fact be answerable. Why did God abandon Jesus? For his own pleasure? (I hope not.) For our salvation? (I hope so.) If the latter, how can this be? How does God-abandonment serve God's saving purpose? Is it because abandonment is a trick to enter the sphere of sin, death and the devil in order to defeat it? Is it because Jesus is suffering our punishment in our place? Is it because sin is somehow extinguished through his death in God-abandonment? Is it some or all of these?
I think I've raised enough questions for us all to think on for a while. I think its the nature of this word from the cross that it raises many questions. I've hinted at how I would answer some of these? How about you?
How do you answer the first main question, and why?
How do you answer the follow-up questions, and why?
What other questions does this word from the cross raise?