Jesus Forsaken: today's God
In depth
How the First Testament illuminates the meaning of the New Testament

Franz Sedlmeier
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The cry of Jesus on the Cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” has appeared too unprecedented and scandalous for centuries. An historical vision of the narration of the passion in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew has at times been sustained that Jesus on the cross recited Psalm 22 as the prayer for the dying. Actually, the perspective is broader: the two Synoptic Gospels used the scenario described by the Psalm as a background in order to explain the profound and universal meaning of the death of the Son of God. The author of this article, who through a rigorous analysis opens up far-reaching horizons, is an ordinary professor of Old Testament exegesis at the University of Augsburg (Germany).

The death of Jesus is a dramatic event. The evangelists each have their own way of talking about this divine-human event. According to Luke, Jesus dies with a prayer on his lips taken from Psalm 31: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46). With total trust, he gives his life back to the Father and dies. “It is finished
(tetélestai),” are Jesus’ last words according to John’s Gospel. The evangelist then adds, “Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit (parédoken tò pneuma)” (Jn 19:30).

The Synoptic Gospels of Matthew and Mark refer that Jesus’ last word is his cry of abandonment. “Eloì, Eloì, lamà sabactàni? which means, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” this is the version from Mark (15:34). The fact that two Gospels certified this prayer gives it a particular value. I would like to show how the meaning and importance of these words can be adequately understood only if the interpretation keeps their Old Testament background. We will therefore undertake a concise excursus, which introduces us in the suggestive scenario of Psalm 22.

Hints on the prayer of lament in the Bible

Psalm 22 is a prayer of lament. Different elements that outline an itinerary of prayer are part of such a lament. Praying in the form of lament means to follow an itinerary that leads beyond fear, anguish and the separation of God.

Such an itinerary always begins by
addressing God. Even though he is perceived as distant, he is invoked. The absence of a relationship is attributed to God. In this way, distress takes a direction.

giving a name to anguish, the itinerary of the lament requires giving it a countenance. They could be heartfelt hardships, but also external tribulations, like enemies who persecute and corner those who pray. The worst tribulation is usually separation of God. Giving a name to these different countenances of tribulation is the condition to reach a new life, assuming it and not sidestepping it.

A third element of the prayer of lament is
the declaration of trust. The healing begins there where there is a wound. Trust lies here too. Trust is not less profound than pain and suffering. Praying in the form of lament means to release the strength of trust.
The fourth element of the prayer of lament is
the avid request of salvation and help. In a certain way, the prayer of lament is also a conflict, a struggle. It implies the availability to change and renewal.
Lastly – as a fifth element –
praise and thanksgiving are also part of the lament: “I shall again praise him...” (cf. Ps 43:5). With this, the person praying (the pray-er) means: whatever tribulation oppresses me, anguish is not everything. In this way, the itinerary of the prayer of lament prevents that anguish suffocates every hope and keeps the pray-er from being a prisoner.

Psalm 22 is this itinerary of prayer that consists of invocation to God,
description of the tribulation, trust, plea and praise. However these elements are used in a creative way. The pray-er tries three times to get out of the unbearable tribulation of being separated from God. This itinerary is interrupted every time. The tribulation keeps him hostage, it does not set him free. In the second part of the Psalm this three-phase itinerary of lament corresponds to a praise to God, which also develops into three phases.

Psalm 22 as a lament
First itinerary of lament: verses 1-5

Verses 1-2: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” With the double appellative addressed to God, the pray-er expresses his underlying tribulation: the painfully felt absence of God. The Hebrew question word, lāmā does not ask so much about the cause of the separation from God, but rather the hidden meaning: what was your aim in abandoning me? What sense is there having to live day and night – therefore always – without God, without peace and hence without space and a place?

Verses 3-5. From the dramatic experience of tribulation follows a first expression of trust. However, the pray-er does not speak about his own trust, but rather of the trust of his ancestors, of the fathers. They trusted and were saved. Their faith was successful. On mentioning the fathers, brings to mind the story of the whole people of God. In this way the lament of the pray-er acquires a new dimension. It is inserted in the great tradition of faith of the people of God. In some Psalms this becomes an answer for the pray-er: he finds the meaning to his life again and he finds peace. It is not like this here. In Psalm 22 it is not the same.

Second itinerary of lament: verses 6-11

Verses 6-8. The horizon of the great story of faith of the people of God throws the pray-er into an even deeper solitude. With drastic words he prays: “But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.” The pray-er no longer finds his dignity, his humanity has been razed to the ground. He is like an earthworm. The cynical insults of his neighbours intensify the anguish he feels. In their opinion, a person so harshly struck is cursed by God too.

Verses 9-10. In this tribulation, where his humanity is oppressed and the cynicism of others takes away every space to live, the pray-er finds himself deferred to his own roots. Resorting to his origins, he tries to reacquire trust and find ground under his feet again. In verses 9-10, he refers four times to his mother, speaking about “my mother’s breast” and “since my mother bore me.” “Since my mother bore me you have been my God,” he affirms with desperate trust. From his first moment of life, he was sent back to God. Therefore, he asks God to assume his responsibility. He is responsible for his creature who has been harshly struck.

Verse 11. Only after the memories of his origins does the pray-er formulate a plea for the first time: the request that he may have the gift of feeling God’s closeness once more. However, as soon as he expressed this plea, the itinerary of prayer is interrupted again.

Third itinerary of lament: verses 12-21

The third stage begins with a heart rending lament about his own enemies. Ferocious animals are named: roaring lions, bulls and dogs. In the iconography of the Ancient Near East, these wild beasts were a symbol of chaos and its destructive power. The life of the pray-er therefore sinks into chaos. His identity, his being is dissolved. “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast” (v. 14). The pray-er is surrounded by enemies and jeerers. Although he is still alive, for them he is already dead. “My hands and feet have shrivelled ... they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots” (vv. 16.18s.). In the midst of all this suffering – this is the peak of the drama – God himself is at work. “[You] lay me in the dust of death” (v. 15). It is God himself acting in this and in a totally obscure way, God gives up on him and destroys his life. If this impression on the one hand is nearly unbearable, on the other it means that the pray-er no longer looks for God outside his suffering, but in the midst of it, in the lowest point, in the “dust of death.” From this lowest point, which foresees the change that will take place later, rises a new plea that is stronger and more insistent than before: “But you, O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid! ... Save me” (vv. 19.21a). From the plea a profound trust is born, which is poured forth from the deepness of God’s separation: You will answer me. The Hebrew text formulates the affirmation in the past: “You answered me.” A way of expressing oneself that was called
perfectum confidentiae. Even though the answer will take place only in the future, we use the recent past tense to express the certainty that God will respond. This divine response expresses the second part of the Psalm, which bursts into a song of praise.

Psalm 22:22-31
prayer of praise in three phases

The tribulation described in the first part of the Psalm is abyssal, without compare. However, the following prayer of praise is no less abyssal and unprecedented, which is also articulated in three phases. In Bible times, when someone had been saved from great tribulation, they would invite their neighbours to a thanksgiving ceremony with a shared meal. They would gather their relatives, friends and acquaintances and during the shared meal they would announce that they had come back to life: they were part of the community, of society once more. On that occasion the person who had been saved would recount their tribulation and how they were saved by God. They would then invite those present to join in their thanksgiving.

Who are the guests in Psalm 22 that the pray-er invites after having been saved from such a trial? Who could take part in his thanksgiving feast?

Verses 22-24. First of all the pray-er invites his “brothers and sisters,” those “who fear the Lord” and the descendants of Israel to the prayer of praise. In other words: the whole people of God is called to participate in the experience of salvation and the thanksgiving feast.

Verses 25-28. In a second invitation he turns to all those who look for God, to all the ends of the earth and all the races of the nations. Namely: this experience of salvation regards all peoples. All human beings are invited to the great feast, especially the poor who are explicitly named.

Verses 29-31. Lastly not only the mighty of the earth are involved in the prayer of praise but also those “who go down to the dust,” that is the generations of centuries past. Even the generations to come: the invitation to participate in this prayer of praise and in the great feast also goes to “a people yet unborn.”

What does all this mean? Psalm 22 speaks about an experience of salvation brought about by God who is relevant not only to the people of Israel, but to the whole world and for all times. God’s saving action, described here, is very important for the people of God and for universal history.

Retrospective on the whole Psalm

Let’s try to summarize what we have considered till now. A person who has been despised and insulted by his own kind places all his trust in JHWH. With his life he measures up his whole experience of God’s separation, but he does not give up on his God. He rather looks for him precisely where, according to common conviction, God is not and no longer works: in the dust of death, in the space of God’s separation. This despised person who struggles and fights to remain steady in his trust in God, is saved precisely by God and he announces his experience of salvation. This rescue of the just person has such an impact on him that he changes life and motivates the world.
Who is this person, according to
Psalm 22? He is a just person with an exemplary life, a person who belongs to JHWH, he is the just person par excellence who wholeheartedly adheres to JHWH. At the same time his whole existence is orientated to Israel, to the whole people of JHWH. Moreover, the life and experience of this person are relevant for the whole of humanity, according to space and time, namely: everywhere and in every era.

It was this Psalm that was taken as a model for the narration of the passion in both the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. Both narrations carry the mark of Psalm 22. Let’s go back to the experience of the abandonment of Jesus. I will follow Mark’s Gospel.

The abandonment of Jesus
according to Mark’s Gospel

If the death of Jesus is interpreted against the background of Psalm 22, then we should keep in mind the universal horizon of the Psalm. What happens in the death of Jesus is an event that changes history. Since the quotation of the first verse of the Psalm already resounds the whole prayer, while in Mark’s passion only the first part is used, that is the lament, we need to ask ourselves: what happened to the second part? Where is the great prayer of praise? The answer is quite important: for Mark, the cross where Jesus suffers the abandonment and the place near the cross as the space of the abandonment from God, are
at the same time also the prophecy of the awaited salvation that comes from God!

Let’s penetrate deeper into the narration of the passion according to Mark. Jesus launches the cry of abandonment (v. 34) and giving a loud cry he gave up his spirit (v. 37). Then the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the pagan centurion, seeing him die in that way, confessed: “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (v. 39). Here four events are connected to each other: the death of Jesus in the abandonment, the gift of the Spirit, the tearing of the temple curtain and the confession of the centurion.

Let’s pause here especially on the reality of the curtain of the temple. Following the cry of abandonment and the emission of the Spirit, the curtain that was dividing the Most Holy Sacrament from the profane is torn. The sacred opens up towards the profane, it opens up to the world.

The Greek word for “tearing”
(schizo) is rarely used. In Mark’s Gospel it doesn’t only appear near the end, after the last words of Jesus, but also in the beginning, before the first words of Jesus: at the baptism in the River Jordan: without a doubt it’s a hint of his descent into the passion until the abandonment of the Father. “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” And a voice from heaven proclaimed, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Where Jesus, the beloved Son of the Father, is, is where he lives and works, the heavens opened there. There is where the Father’s love becomes tangible, Paradise is no longer closed. Israel’s great yearning, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” (Is 64:1), finds an answer in the person of Jesus.
Expressing his vital relationship with the Father, Jesus then pronounces his first words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mk 1:15). He then calls his disciples to this new reality of open heaven. He starts to cure people and evil has to give way, the demons flee.
In the person of Jesus begins the fullness of times in which the heavens are opened. This is the meaning of his mission.

And now on the cross? An abrupt rupture takes place. It seems that contradiction and no meaning have the last word.

Through the open heaven, the beloved Son of the Father had invited the earth to life and now he cries: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
With this everything is put at risk. The meaning of Jesus’ mission is at stake. If God distances himself from him, then heaven remains closed.
Therefore the world is just the prison, the tomb of the human being. In the end everything is swallowed up by a bottomless abyss. Jesus, whose reason of being and his mission were to disclose the mystery of the closeness of God, is lost in the abandonment at the hands of God, there where God is no longer found. Why? So that from now onwards we could find God also where he isn’t. Therefore, the place of God’s absence becomes the place of God’s presence, it becomes locus theologicus. Because, in the beloved Son abandoned by God, God transforms the place of God’s separation into the place of God’s closeness. “Truly this man was God’s Son!” confesses the Roman centurion, representing the whole world, because all peoples of the past, present and future – affirms the Old Testament Psalm – are invited to the great praise and feast. The death of Jesus in the abandonment and his salvation from death are in this way transformed into the sign of unity for all peoples.

The experience of God’s separation and humanity today

Jesus in his abandonment becomes the real symbol of God’s closeness in the midst of God’s separation. He was shocked and cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and saw the sense of life shattering and his mission failing. Was he not precisely the word that God turns to the world and humanity today? I quote, as an example, a poem by the writer Eva Zeller (*1923) who makes reference to the abandonment of Jesus on the cross.
“Where do you remain, oh God?” is the question that she poses. She answers: it’s in the experience of God’s separation that we find ourselves – in him and similar to him.

Where do you remain, oh God?

Where if not in the ninth hour
when he cried out
we are
like an exact portrait of him

Only his cry
still makes him credible
and we make him resound
on everyone’s lips