A thought at Easter: Jesus’ shout of abandonment

About the ninth hour [3 pm] Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matt 27:46 (NIV); also Mark 15:34 (NIV: At the ninth hour…

Jesus' shout of abandonment is a double challenge. It challenges us first and foremost because it communicates Jesus’ sheer desperation at this moment of the crucifixion, shockingly unlike anything he has expressed before. Matthew’s account leading up to this moment is horrendous: passers-by shout blasphemies at him, shaking their heads in disgust; they challenge him to show he is God’s son by miraculously freeing himself from the cross; the elite mock him about the ‘King of the Jews’ placard above his head; even the criminals on either side insult him. All this on top of the excruciating agony and destructiveness of crucifixion. An act of God predicted by Amos (8:9) 750 years earlier turns the sky strangely dark in the early afternoon,  Finally, Jesus can take no more, and screams,  ‘My God, my God, why did you abandon me?’ Someone rushes off to get a sponge filled with wine vinegar and offers it to him on a stick, but he gives one last shout and finally dies. John (19:30) records the shout: ‘It is finished!’ If we have any concept at all that Jesus underwent crucifixion for us, then the cry of abandonment is deeply shocking and strongly challenging.

The second challenge is, What do Jesus’ shouts mean? A fairly standard evangelical interpretation says that Jesus had to suffer and die like this as a sacrifice for humanity’s sin, taking the punishment that a wrathful God would otherwise inflict on us at the final judgment.  ‘My God, my God, why did you abandon me?’ then expresses the idea that the Father cannot bear to look on his sin-laden son and turns his face from him (hence the darkness?). Jesus’ final cry ‘It is finished!’ is said to be the expression used when the purchase of a slave—in this case a redeemed slave—is completed at a slave market. 

This may be rather a crude summing up of what was allegedly achieved by Jesus’ death, but it is what I was brought up with and have heard preached often enough, so I think it is a popular view, even if a theologian would give a more nuanced account.

But it is a summing up that I have long had a nagging difficulty with, first because I believe in a Triune God of inexhaustible self-giving love, and I do not see  the Father’s self-giving love in this summary. And second because it undermines the Trinity itself. We are told that Jesus is the full manifestation of God’s self-giving love (Colossians 1:15), and I believe this is true. But God is triune, and self-giving love characterises his three persons eternally. So the idea that the Father was somehow separate from the crucified Jesus and was not with him on the cross makes no sense to me. There are other reasons to abandon this account, but they are too complex for this post.[1] 

So how do we interpret the words of Jesus’ shouts? If the Father has not turned his face away from Jesus, why does Jesus shout ‘My God, my God, why did you abandon me?’? One interpretation relies on the fact that Jesus’ words are drawn from Psalm 22:1, and says that in Jewish practice, when Jesus quoted the first verse, this was tantamount to citing the whole psalm, which expresses ultimate hope: for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations. (22:28) This certainly makes rational sense, since Jesus had made it clear that his death would bring about God’s kingdom on earth, and Matthew doubtless had this in mind. But it doesn’t make emotional sense. I cannot believe that Jesus, suffering the agony of crucifixion, had the presence of mind to recall the whole psalm. His suffering was, after all, the suffering of a human being subjected to the worst of all Roman punishments and experiencing the total sum of human sin (God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God; 2Cor 5:21 NIV). What does a person feel who knows that s/he is enmired in sin? A sense that s/he is utterly isolated from God. And when in self-giving love Jesus identified with humanity and entered into humanity’s bondage to the devil he experienced this isolation thousandfold. Small wonder that in the midst of this mind-blowing horror he feels utterly alone, as if totally abandoned. And where is the Father in the midst of this? Jesus says that he and the Father are one (John 10:30). The Father experienced what Jesus experienced.

N.T. Wright says that  ‘It is finished!’ has nothing to do with a purchase being made but must be read in the larger context of John’s gospel.[2]  John’s gospel is written in Greek. He begins it with the Greek words Ἐν ἀρχῇ 'In the beginning’, the very words that begin Genesis in the Greek translation (the Septuagint that many of his Jewish readers would have used. John hints that he is telling the story of God’s plan from creation onward, namely that God had announced that Israel would be a blessing  and a light to the nations (Genesis 12:3, Isaiah 42:6–7, 49:6), and that Israel’s Jesus fulfils this plan. An ongoing theme of John’s is that darkness cannot overcome the light, and that Jesus is that light (1:5–9, 3:19–21, 8:12, 9:5, 12:35–36, 12:46).  John also tells us that Jesus is identified by John the Baptist as the Passover lamb, ‘‘God’s lamb! He’s the one who takes away the world’s sin!” (1:29; also 1:39), a theme he returns to after the crucifixion when he writes, These things, you see, came about so that the Bible might come true: “No bone of his will be broken.” (John 19:36, referring to Numbers 9:12) The Passover lamb stood for God’s liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, and now represents God’s liberation of the nations from the bondage of sin. John is telling a story that began at creation and ‘It is finished!’ is Jesus’ exclamation that that story is concluded. Jesus has taken upon himself the worst that the totality of evil can do and exhausted its power. His calling is fulfilled.

Footnotes

  • [^1]  These reasons are given in detail in N.T. Wright’s 2016 book The day the revolution began: Reconsidering the meaning of Jesus's crucifixion. Similar reasons are alluded to briefly in the recent blog post by Greg Boyd that sparked my writing this. My interpretation differs somewhat from his. (The blog post points us to Boyd’s very recent The crucifixion of the warrior God, which I have yet to read.)
  • [^2]  How God became King, p79; The day the revolution began, Kindle location 3224.