Sunday, May 23, 2010

Did Jesus on the Cross despair when he cried out, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me”?

NOTE: This is one in a series of posts from my moral theology assignments. They are intended to be brief responses. In many cases, the topics could be extensively explored, but that was not the intent of the assignment.

These words of Jesus are cited in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34. Both gospels are evoking the first verse of Psalm 22. Interestingly, the gospels of Luke and John do not quote the same verse, yet they too make reference to Psalm 22 (Luke 23:35; John 19:24). The words indeed seem to be a cry of despair, and Luke’s words indicate that those witnesses at the crucifixion even took them to be such and mocked him: “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” A reading of the text of the psalm suggests an internal struggle, alternating between cries of anguish and a sense of abandonment (“O my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer”) and words of hope (“Yet thou art holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In thee our fathers trusted; they trusted and thou didst deliver them”).

A long section from verses 12 through 18 seems to show the suffering psalmist succumbing to despair, describing his torments in great and prescient detail. In a sense, we can see Jesus’ words in Matthew and Mark as his continuing attempt to reach out to the Jews as if to say, “I am the suffering servant. I am the one of whom the psalmist and Isaiah prophesied.” He is still interpreting the words of scripture to demonstrate who He is, even in His last moments. Yet the psalm moves past the recounting of His suffering to a theme of hope: “The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord!” (22:26) If despair is a sin against faith, as Ashley describes,[i] this psalm does not express despair but hope in God’s deliverance. It demonstrates the hope of the martyr who suffers and dies in the witness of truth.[ii] It relays the understanding of what Christ believed His death meant and what means today for us.[iii] Ultimately, Jesus’ words do not reveal despair but hope.

i. Benedict Ashley, Living the Truth in Love: A Biblical Introduction to Moral Theology, (Staten Island: St. Pauls, 1996), 443.
ii. Ibid., 253.
iii. “The Psalms,” The Navarre Bible: The Psalms and the Song of Solomon. (New York: Scepter Publishing, Inc., 2003), 92.
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