Cry of Abandonment or Prayer of Faith? Reconsidering Jesus' Final Words From the Cross

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For many of us the season of Lent provides an opportunity to reflect more intentionally and more carefully on the meaning and significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our thoughts often turn to the passion narratives and particularly to the words that Jesus uttered as he suffered. In Matthew’s Gospel, the final words of Jesus before his death are the loud cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Commonly referred to as “the cry of dereliction,” these words remind us that Jesus suffered more greatly than we can imagine. It is a bittersweet reminder of the depth of his passionate love for us.

One common interpretation of this saying suggests that, at this very moment, God the Father abandoned God the Son. Unable to look upon the sin that Jesus carried for all of us, the Father turned his back, and the very heart of the Trinity was torn apart. This interpretation presents a variety of difficulties. What would it mean for the Trinity to essentially come apart? And is not the Father pleased with the Son? Why would he abandon his beloved at the moment of his greatest suffering? Even more, if the Father turns his back on the Son, can we trust God to be present with us when we need him the most? Jesus’ cry of forsakenness from the cross clearly presents challenges both theologically and pastorally. These difficulties have caused me to wonder whether there might be another approach to this passage? Can this text be heard on its own terms in a way that is faithfully trinitarian and pastorally sensitive?

The first thing to observe about Jesus’ cry in Matthew 27:46 is that it is a quote from Psalm 22:1. Anytime a New Testament author quotes an Old Testament passage, it is wise to consider whether the original Old Testament context sheds any light on the use of the quote in the New Testament. And in the case of Matthew 27:46, it certainly does.

Psalm 22 is not ultimately a psalm of abandonment. It certainly begins with the psalmist expressing his feelings of forsakenness as he is surrounded by his enemies with his fate in their hands. But throughout the psalm there is an element of hope. Despite his feeling of abandonment, the psalmist recalls that God has kept him safe from infancy (22:9-10). He later calls out, “O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword” (22:19-20). The prayer then comes to a climax as the suffering psalmist declares, “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you. You who fear the Lord, praise him…For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried” (22:22-24). Did you catch that? “He did not hide his face from me!” What if Matthew intended for his readers to have the whole of Psalm 22 in mind when he quoted the first verse?

It very well may be the case that Matthew quotes only the first verse of the psalm as an indication to the reader that Jesus was praying the whole psalm. If so, then this cry is not one of dereliction. Instead, it is a prayer of faith on the part of Jesus that at the moment of his greatest suffering the Father is present with him, hears him, and will ultimately vindicate him. The Father does not abandon the Son; the Father loves the Son and is pleased with the Son. The Father does not turn his back, Instead, he is continually present accepting the sacrifice of his Beloved for the sake of the world.

This interpretation of Matthew 27:46 upholds our trinitarian faith by recognizing that the work accomplished in the atonement is the work of the triune God. Father and Son are at work together to bring about our redemption. Or, to use the words of Paul, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). The suffering of Christ is the passion of God.

This approach to Jesus’ cry from the cross is also pastorally sensitive. It assures us that at the moments of our greatest suffering, when we need God the most, we can trust him to be present. No matter how bad it feels or how great our pain, God will “not hide his face” from his children.

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Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties at Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Connect at mattoreilly.net or follow @mporeilly.

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