Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Seven Words from the Cross, Part IV - My God, My God, Why have your forsaken me?

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?

Any thoughts?
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?


Bob MacDonald said...

I think I prefer the first option combined with the third - real abandonment and real security that the opposite of abandonment is also the ultimate end.

The psalm is to the hart of the dawn. It cannot be anything else than fulfillment of the covenant promise - so Gentile and seed of Jacob (verse 24) will praise the LORD for all the reasons given.

There is no explanation. Our specific weakness is the edge of the greatness God works in us. We don't even know our prayer - but we know when it is answered. And the answer here is implicit in the trouble from the beginning of the psalm.

It is a human issue - there is no need for dividing up the Trinity (a non-invented abstraction at either time period.) The recognition of the obedience of the Son and the incorporation of each of us into participation in this death comes afterwards - speaking from a human point of view.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Despite your criticism of "God consciouness", I would argue for it for the context of understanding "God forsakenness".

Jesus' very identity, as a man was his identity as a "son". In Jewish thought and culture, a "son" had certain priviledges or "rights". But, Jesus did not identify with the position of "God" (human leadership), but became a servant to those who were "God forsaken" and for this he died.

His "feeling of God forsakenness" is his "reality". As humans, we experience "reality" within "time". These experiences are then, interpreted within frameworks to create meaning. Jesus' suffering was seemingly meaningless to him. And his cry of "Why" is a normal response to such suffering. (no one with compassion would ever subvert to undercover legal manueverings to charge him with insurrection for he had done nothing except to "fulfill the law").

Angie Van De Merwe said...

In regards to your question of Jesus' entering "sin and death" to defeat it, yes, Jesus was willing to take the risk of not submitting "until the time" appointed where he willingly laid his life down. In waiting to submit, he revealed the hearts of those who sought to entrap him and recognized his limitation, as a man (he had not sought "glory and fame" from his service). No human being has a right to "lord it over another" (as Jesus commended his disciples to not be like "Gentiles").
In this sense, Jesus' lack of submission would not lend itself easily to modern approaches to "leadership". He knew who he was and what he had come to do, therefore, he was "under no man", and, yet, he became servant of all men. This is development of "God's image" within him.

Anonymous said...

The explanation is easy: 'Matthew' put these words into Jesus' mouth because he wanted to create a connection to Psalm 22 and the message it conveys.

Anonymous said...

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