Good Friday Reflection on “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani”

Matthew 27:45-46: 45 From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. 46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli,[a] lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).[b]

Let us pray:

Now, O Lord, calm us into quietness.  Take us to that place within You that heals, listens, and molds our longings and passions, our wounds and wanderings, and transforms us into a more holy human shape.  For it is in You that we live and move and have our being.[1]  Amen.

Christian singer/songwriter Michael Card wrote a poignant song with these words of Jesus.  It begins in this way:

Eli, Eli
(My God, my God)
La ma sabach thani?
(Why have You forsaken me?)
Eli, Eli
La ma sabach thani?

Why are you so far from saving me?
So far from the words of my groaning?
By night and by day I cry out in pain
So why do you not answer?

It has been asked, “Isolated and helpless at the end, does Jesus succumb to despair and cry out in God-forsakenness? His cry in Aramaic (27:46) quotes Psalm 22.”[2]  Since it is from Psalm 22, we might wonder if Jesus is fully coherent enough at the end of his death throws to be thinking of the full 31 verses of the Psalm, which ends in spiritual peace and confidence; or whether the only line he is capable of in his pain is the line of utter desolation? What is he feeling here?  What is he thinking?  And, what would it mean for our faith either way?

Theologically it can be observed that, “After Jesus has done everything in his power and his enemies everything in theirs, one power alone remains to act. God declares the final judgment, reversing the status quo, raising Jesus from death, and vindicating the crucified one and his way of loving God and neighbor.”[3] In light of that observation, I could be persuaded to view these words of Christ from the cross as the only portion he could speak in his pain, but knowing in his heart and mind the rest of it being lived out in that moment. In verse 21 of the Psalm, the text shifts from lament about human evil to a litany of all that will be fulfilled with his sacrificial love:

21b From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me. 22I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: 23You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! 24For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him…. 27All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. … 29To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. 30Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, 31and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.”

Putting some thought into why Jesus was the sacrificial lamb – and who was doing the sacrificing – can lead us to greater understanding of what led him to feelings of abandonment in this moment.

“Theologian Walter Brueggemann writes, “Empires are never built nor are they maintained on the basis of compassion.”1 Roman rulers expected their citizens to remain silent in response to the human cost of war, to remain mute in the face of the human cost of greed. They kept their colonies in check by systemic terror. The price of prophetic witness was death. Jesus speaks up. He acts. He heals the sick and recovers the sight of the blind. He eats with the poor and the abandoned. By and through his compassion, he takes the first step in revealing the abnormality, as Brueggemann says, that has become business as usual. This leads him finally and inexorably to the cross, to the place where power and vulnerability intersect ….”[4]

And, to his cry of abandonment. To be abandoned, one has to know what it was like to be among friends, family, and loved ones, and then left by them.  It is utterly debilitating. Yet here he is, willingly subject to it, so that he might be with us.

May all glory be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ.  Amen?  May it be so.

[1] Adapted from a poem by Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2004).

[2] James O. Duke, “Theological Perspective, Matthew 27:11-54” in Feasting on the Word, Year A (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Nora Gallagher, “Homiletical Perspective, Psalm 22” in Feasting on the Word, Year A (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
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