‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’
Three prayers of Jesus from the Cross are recorded in the gospel accounts. In strict chronological order they are
‘Father, Forgive them for they know not what they do’
this prayer, ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’
and finally, ‘Father into your hands I commend my Spirit.’
I begin today with the prayer of abandonment simply because the other two both come in Luke and I wanted us to reflect on them consecutively.
Jesus at prayer is a central aspect of his final hours. John has his long prayer recorded in John 17, prayed in the Upper Room with the disciples at the close of the Last Supper.
Matthew, Mark and Luke record his praying in Gethsemane. Anguished praying focussed on all that lies ahead. Judas Iscariot has gone to betray him; he knows the disciples will abandon him; he knows that trial, conviction and death are imminent. In Gethsemane he abandons himself to the Father’s will; he commits to drinking the cup of suffering. It is agonising prayer. Luke tells us he sweats as if it were drops of blood.
Jesus was nailed to the cross by the Roman soldiers and lifted into position ‘at the third hour’ that is 9.00 a.m. for the next three hours he was taunted by the robbers on either side of him; by the passing crowd – some of whom at least had probably cheered him into Jerusalem just a few days before; and mocked by chief priests, scribes and elders – who normally avoided such public executions.
We cannot begin to understand the physical pain he was enduring let alone the mental and emotional anguish. There was support from some women standing by, but he was without hope of relief or release.
He saw the soldiers dividing his garments between them by playing dice. Psalm 22 was surely brought to mind by it all.
Read Psalm 22 : 6-8, 14-18
If so then also the prayers of the Psalmist weould come to mind– 22:9-11, 19-21
But then after three hours, the sky darkens, the pain increases, the thirst grows; the mockery continues, except from one of the criminals who radically changes his tune! Jesus’ awareness of desolation, of abandonment, of God’s judgement being exercised apparently deepens and strengthens until he cries in prayer in the opening words of Psalm 22 ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Here at this point he is abandoned, desolate, forsaken, even by the Father whose will he sought always to do. The Father who gave him the words to speak. The Father who anointed him with the Spirit. The Father who declared him to be ‘My Son, my beloved in whom I am well pleased.’
No ‘well pleased’ here, for here there is abandonment, total desolation. Here Jesus is alone.
All who through pain, suffering, loss, anguish, abuse, rejection, feel utterly forsaken and abandoned have a fellow sufferer; a companion who has been there himself. Drained of all sense of being loved, valued, cared for, Jesus, the Son of God, is forsaken.
And yet he still says ‘My God, my God’ – although utterly forsaken, totally abandoned he still sees God as his God.
He still clings on to a belief that God is there and he is still connected to him. However utterly forsaken and abandoned he is.
Here is a deep mystery – that in the total forsakenness of bearing the sins of the world; of taking the judgement of God against all human sin into and upon himself – and thus being cast off – he still knows God is God, and is ‘My God’.
We can never plumb the depths of the mystery of prayer and how in it we maintain our connection with God or his with us. Yet it is true.
We can never grasp the depth of the tearing apart of the Father, Son and Spirit. God rends himself apart. In the deepest divine mystery of all God breaks himself apart by abandoning his incarnate Son to the horrors of death on the Cross as the sin bearing Lamb of God; as the scape-goat who carries our sin away from us.
This is all caught up in this anguished prayer ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ as we hear the prayer again we know that because he prayed it, and experienced it, in the deepest sense of all we will never have to do so.
‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do’
Mary and Joseph were both told by the angel that they were to call their baby Jesus. Joseph was specifically told that this was because he ‘would save his people from their sins’. We don’t know when Joseph and Mary shared the stories of Jesus’ divine conception but we can be sure that they did at some point. Jesus knew his name, Yeshua, the Lord saves, was significant; it spoke of his calling and purpose.
Throughout the three years of his public ministry forgiveness was a central feature of both Jesus’ teaching and his actions.
He assured the paralytic lowered through the ceiling ‘Your sins are forgiven you’ and then healed him to demonstrate to the teachers who questioned him that he had the authority to forgive sins (Luke 5:20-26).
He deliberately mixed with those who were regarded as ‘sinners’ offering them God’s welcome and a fresh start.
The woman who washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair was assured ‘Your sins are forgiven’ (Luke 7:48).
The women taken in the act of adultery was set free, yet told ‘Go and sin no more’ (John 8:1-12)
In his teaching Jesus taught ‘love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you’ (Luke 6.27f). The Parable of the Prodigal Son taught the generosity of God in forgiveness (Luke 15).
So in this prayer Jesus was practising what he had taught. Here he is loving his enemies even as they taunt and mock him. He is praying God’s Blessing on them as they curse him.
Jesus recognises that there is an ignorance in his persecutors. They do not know what they are doing. They fail to recognise who he is, what crime they commit. They believed they were doing the right thing in getting rid of Jesus. They were ignorant of their sin. They were ignorant too of the significance of what was happening.
Here the salvation of the world is being worked out. In this very act of dying Jesus is bringing about the forgiveness of all sin – yet they do not; they cannot see this.
Ignorance of our sin still lives with us. We speak to and of one another in ways which are dishonouring, even cursing. We do not realise how deeply our words can pierce and hurt. We cast looks at each other which speak anger, dislike, hatred. We hurt by our looks, or our failure to look. We pass each other by without a word or a smile. We appear to snub or ignore. We buy our food or clothing with no thought of the impact on an oppressed farmer, a slave labour child, or an exploited seafarer. We are genuinely ignorant of so much of our sin.
Even when sin is deliberate, as the cursing and crucifixion were here, we are ignorant of the real pain we cause; the depth of damage we incur; the suffering we cause.
Yes human beings are capable of remarkable feats of love and courage. We amazingly express something of the image of God in us all which is marred rather than totally destroyed. We must be deeply thankful for it all. But we must never pretend we are innocent bystanders; essentially alright and good when we are the people in the crowd crying ‘Crucify’. It is our voices that mock, our words that wound. We may be ignorant in many ways but we know we are as guilty as this crowd.
And from the Cross Jesus prays for us ‘Father, forgive them’. He blesses us. He offers us forgiveness. Just as he did to the dying thief who asks ‘Jesus remember me’ he does for us ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’ He welcomes us, forgives us, does not condemn us for he takes the condemnation into himself for us. He knowingly takes on the sin so that we can knowingly be forgiven.
Reflect on your sinfulness, turn to him and say ‘Jesus remember me’ and hear him say ‘Forgiven’.
‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’
In Matthew and Mark there is simply a ‘loud cry’ and in Mark, Jesus ‘breathed his last’; in Matthew he ‘yielded up his spirit’. John has the triumphant concluding cry ‘It is finished’ and then Jesus ‘bowed his head and gave up his spirit’. Only Luke has the words of a prayer accompanying the yielding up of his spirit; the giving up of his life.
‘Father’ indicates the continued intimacy between Jesus and his Father seen in the way he prayed throughout his life, and the way he taught the disciples to pray. It is there in the last prayer we considered, ‘Father, forgive them’. There is not here the anguish of abandonment that Matthew and Mark record with “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Here with the final prayer intimacy and assurance is renewed. Should we be surprised? Are the evangelists disagreeing with each other?
Well as we noted earlier ‘My God, my God’ is drawn from Psalm 22. This final prayer is drawn from Psalm 31:5. Jesus is again using the words of a Psalm to pray.
In both Psalms the writer expresses the opposition they face; the awareness of being hunted down, pursued, cursed, and yet in both there is too expression of trust in God. Often in the Psalms generally the Psalmist ranges between feeling God is distant, not listening, ineffective, inactive and also trusting that he is still there, will act and vindicate his servant. The Psalmist’s word and thoughts can swing widely within one psalm. The same can be said of the prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. They can feel abandoned, and yet trust.
It seems the same is true for Jesus. The very fact that he draws on two Psalms that do this within themselves points us to understanding that somehow both can be true. Jesus is utterly abandoned, in anguish at being forsaken, and yet able to confidently commit his life, his breath into his Father’s hands.
Here in this final prayer Jesus expresses his trust that ultimately his life, and his vindication lies not with himself but with the Father. Hence the triumphant ‘It is finished’. The work is done; he knew that he had to suffer and die, and here he has accomplished and completed that calling.
What becomes of him; what is the outcome of this act of sacrifice is not for him to determine but for his Father. He trusts God that He will work it out. His purpose will be fulfilled. His glory will be upheld. Somehow through forsakenness, abandonment, innocent suffering, laying his life down as the sacrificial Passover lamb, God will work it out.
This is the faith expressed by ‘Father into your hands I commit my spirit’. It is hard for us to grasp because we know what happened next. We know he was vindicated, the Father did raise him from the dead, the good news of forgiveness in his name, has spread through all the earth. The disciples did return, got it and spread the word. But at that moment of final release this is an ordinary prayer of faith and confidence in his Father who has abandoned him.
Prayer is extraordinarily risky. It can appear reckless, pointless, fruitless. It can appear mad because it can fly in the face of all the evidence in front of us. All can appear to say God is no longer here; God does not care; God is ineffectual; evil has triumphed; good has been abandoned; hope is gone – and yet we still say Father into your hands I commit – I/We cannot do anything; we cannot see the way through; all seems lost, hopeless and helpless, and yet we still say ‘Father into your hands I commit’.
Jesus went this way so that we would know that we can follow. He went through the Cross so that we too, when we face apparent failure, loss, abandonment and forsakenness can, like him, also say Father into your hands I commit my life.