Delivered April 17, 2011
Mark 15:22-37 NRSV
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is one of the age-old, universal cries of humanity. If there is a loving, all-powerful God, then why are the innocent allowed to suffer? And why would a loving God choose to forsake one in his or her greatest hour of need? Such are the questions that for thousands of years have beset the faithful.
Perhaps you, too, have uttered that anguished cry—“My God, why have you forsaken me?” that Jesus is said to have uttered—during a trying time in your own life. Perhaps there was a time when you experienced unbearable physical pain because of a debilitating back problem. Or maybe your pain was more emotional than physical as the sadness brought on by some overwhelming loss was about more than you could bear. Or maybe you can remember a time in your life when the world seemed to be completely stacked against you, throwing at you one problem and setback after another. Whatever the source of anguish and pain, you cried out, or felt like crying out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?!” It reminds me of that African-American spiritual that laments, “Nobody knows the trouble I see!” Perhaps you have been there at a low place in your life when you felt that nobody knew the trouble you faced, not even God.
You may be aware of the fact that the cry on the cross that Jesus is said to have exclaimed is a direct quote from the 22nd Psalm. Indeed, there are a number of parallels between the account of Jesus’ crucifixion and the experience related by the psalmist in that plea for deliverance from suffering. The cry of anguish, the mocking by enemies, the dehydration, gambling for his clothing—these are a few of the elements in Psalm 22 that are used to describe Jesus’ experience on the cross.
But here is the big theological question of the day: Was Jesus truly forsaken by God? There are at least two quite different theories regarding Jesus’ feeling forsaken by God. The first, more traditional one, is that yes, Jesus was forsaken by God of necessity. As you know, the traditional view of the crucifixion is that Jesus was appointed to die as an atonement for the sin of humanity. It was God’s will that Jesus die as he did. Based on the ancient Jewish practice of an animal sacrifice to atone for sin, Jesus traditionally has been seen as the perfect end of the sacrificial system as he once and for all became the perfect human sacrifice to atone for the sins of the whole world. In doing so, Jesus is believed to have taken upon himself all the sins of the world. Since it is said that God cannot look upon sin, there was a time while Jesus was upon the cross that God could not look at him. God had to abandon or forsake Jesus as he died upon the cross. Hence Jesus’ anguished cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Such goes one of the traditional views.
But there is another view. In this view, it was not divinely appointed to Jesus to die on the cross. It was not God’s will that Jesus die such an horrific death. Rather than God orchestrating the death of Jesus, his death on a Roman cross was orchestrated by an evil, misguided world. In the view of contemporary Christian theologians like John Shelby Spong and Marcus Borg, Jesus was killed by an unholy religious-political alliance between those holding religious power and the mighty Roman Empire because Jesus was a revolutionary who was seen as a threat to the status quo—both religious and political. In this view, God was angry and saddened that Jesus died as he did.
But if this is so, then why would Jesus cry out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” The answer is simple. In his humanity, and his identification with all humanity, it was only natural and necessary that Jesus experience what most every other man and woman experiences in life, including the feeling of abandonment by God. In his humanity, Jesus had to feel forsaken, abandoned, just like we sometimes may feel. But feeling abandoned and actually being abandoned are two different things. According to this progressive view, God did not forsake Jesus in his greatest hour of need. Rather, God was right there alongside of Jesus suffering with him.
Such is illustrated by the story about a man who had been a devout Christian, until his teenage son was sent off to war and died on the battlefield. The loss of his son totally changed the man’s life. He lost his Christian faith and became hardened and unbelieving. When questioned by a minister about his loss of faith, the man said, “If there is a loving God, as you say, then where was he when my son was killed?” After thinking for a moment, the minister replied, “God was at the same place when your son died that he was when his own son died—right there with him, suffering alongside him.” The end result of this theory that God did not abandon Jesus is that after his terrible death God vindicated him by giving him life after death, exalting him and making him the Lord of all. Such is the view that some of the early Christian leaders like the Apostle Paul took.
Do you see the difference in the two theories? On the one hand, God willed Jesus’ death, Jesus took upon himself the sins of the whole world, God could not look upon such, so God abandoned him while on the cross. The other theory is that God would never will such a horrific death for anyone, Jesus was killed by an unjust and misguided world, God suffered with him, and then God vindicated him by making him the Lord of the Church. The direction one goes depends a lot upon his or her upbringing, theology, Christology (view of Christ), and view of God.
Well, what is my own personal view? you may be asking. Personally, I do not believe that Jesus was forsaken or abandoned. I believe that Jesus certainly felt like he was forsaken by God and everyone else, as any human would do. It is said of his inner circle of disciples when Jesus was arrested, “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled” (Matthew 26:56). So it was only natural that Jesus would feel totally abandoned in his greatest hour of need. As hinted in the beginning, I can think of a time of unbearable physical pain in my own life when I felt forsaken and could not understand why my prayers asking for relief were not answered. Perhaps you can too.
But the image of Jesus’ cross can become a religious symbol packed with meaning and comfort for us, if we let it, regardless of our theological orientation. Joseph Campbell, in his monumental book, The Power of Myth, says something that strikes a chord with me. Regarding the cross as a Christian symbol, Campbell observes, “ . . . the sign of the cross . . . symbolizes not only the one historic moment on Calvary but the mystery through all time and space of God’s presence and participation in the agony of all living things.”1 That is a powerful thought!
The good news as I have come to embrace it is we are never, ever really forsaken. There is a verse in the New Testament book of Hebrews that has impacted my life and become one of my favorite verses and one of the religious pillars upon which I have built my own faith. It is this: “he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5). We may go through trying periods in our lives when we feel forsaken, when we are convinced that we have been forsaken by God and perhaps by others. But it is not so. There are always those close to us—family members, friends, fellow church members—who stick by us, as there were a select few who stuck by Jesus. And as to God, I am convinced that if God is anything, God is all-inclusive love. And all-inclusive love does not forsake, but remains faithful (and present) always. Amen.
1Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, 116.