And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice,
“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
God…where are you?
God…are you on vacation? Did you take a break?
God…where are you?
This is the question posed in both Matthew and Mark’s Gospel telling of this part of the story while Jesus is on the cross. The words attributed to Jesus in both of these Gospels, are borrowed from the first line of Psalm 22 in the Hebrew Scriptures: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
It would be an understatement to say that these particular words have troubled and puzzled Bible scholars and theologians. Even the Apostle Paul, in his letters to Corinth and Galatia, struggled with his own interpretation of it. Was Jesus cursed? Did God give Jesus up? I mean, think about it: If Jesus is really God’s Son, sent into the world to save people, why in the world would God abandon him in the very moment when God was needed most? Seems pretty cruel and also inconsistent with God’s loving character, doesn’t it?
So scholars talk. People interpret over the centuries. And two main perspectives emerge.
Perspective number one: Biblical literalists argue that this so-called cry of dereliction does indeed reflect Jesus being abandoned by God. Yes, God abandoned Jesus, because God needed to preserve God’s holiness. God cannot be associated with human sin, which Jesus took upon himself on the cross. In this view, God turned God’s face away from Jesus. And so Jesus cried out. Those who hold this view see this as the ultimate example of Jesus’ atonement, or substitution for human sin.
Perspective number two: God did not abandon Jesus. This cry from the cross was a fitting expression of an actual trust in God—reflecting the ancient traditions of the Hebrew prophets, psalmists, and rabbis. Jesus’ cry, in this view, is a lament. The suffering is real, the pain is real, but the trust is also real. God doesn’t turn away. In fact, Jesus communicates with God in an intimate and even argumentative way. God, if you are loving and just, why not be loving and just in this very moment?
Honestly, no one has a right way to view these words written in Aramaic. But I do think that if we remember the flow of the Psalms, perhaps our perspective will deepen and we’ll gravitate less to cookie-cutter explanations. Psalm 22, like many Psalms, begins with a lament and an honest-to-goodness challenging of God.
Where are you, God?
Then, the Psalm moves through history. In the past, God actually was present, faithful, and loving. Verse 4: In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. The God of history was there for us.
But then, Psalm 22 goes back to the here-and-now. God, people are hurting me; I feel alone; I have enemies; I sometimes feel lost and left out; God, things aren’t going well for me in my life! I am a worm, says verse 6, and not human; scorned by others; and despised by people.
Then the Psalm turns to honest pleading: God, help me! Don’t be far away! No one else will help! I am poured out like water, my bones are out of joint, my heart is like wax; you lay me in the dust of death.
But as the Psalmist brings the song to a close, praises begin to emerge in verse 22: I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you. And justices take place: The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord. Anguish and seeming abandonment turns to praise and thankfulness and belief in justice.
For me, these words in Matthew and Mark cannot be interpreted or meditated on without Psalm 22. There are more clues, you see. In Mark, the mocking crowd around the cross has an attitude and they shake their heads, saying: Since he trusted God, let God deliver him. This is Psalm 22:8 verbatim. The images of disjointed bones, the reality of thirst and the piercing of hands and feet all appear in Psalm 22 and at the cross. Mark and Matthew’s Gospels are painting this story with Psalmist brushstrokes. This is not a literal account, but a metaphoric retelling. God did not abandon Jesus, creating some sort of God-humanity separation.
God was always there, is always there, will be always here—still speaking, still loving, still acting.
Jesus’ cry is our cry. It is the cry of all those in the world who suffer needlessly. It is the cry of children, youth, and adults in Syria, Gaza, and Israel who experience violence on a daily basis. It is the cry of the hungry and the forgotten in the Sudan. It is the cry of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who are persecuted, beaten, and arrested. It is the cry of all who feel alone, deserted, guilty, empty, depressed, lost, or broken.
Jesus’ words and the Psalmist’s words are honest and do not hide their feelings. They encourage all people to cry out to God and to expect God to respond.
God…where are you?
In the suffering; in the pain; in the rejection.
With those pushed down; with the oppressed; with all who are hungry and thirsty.
Where will we be?