Did God Forsake Jesus on the Cross?

One of the most complicated issues in Christian thought: what is the relation of God to Jesus as he is dying? For many, God is in heaven as Jesus dies on earth and God is pouring wrath or anger out on Jesus. God must do this because God has placed our sins on Jesus and God deals with sin by exercising wrath. Some point out that even Jesus believed this when he quotes Psalm 22 from the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God could only forsake Jesus if he had turned his back on our sin (or so the logic goes). Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22 is the only time in the gospels where Jesus does not refer to God as Father, so we must ask what is occurring here. Most of us are familiar with Psalm 23 and could recite it by heart. It brings us comfort in times of distress. But perhaps we are not so familiar with Psalm 22. Psalm 22 is a cry of dereliction. It is a psalm about the experience of being the victim of an unjust accusation and of being prosecuted. In short, it is a psalm about being a scapegoat. Many of us have had experience with this, where we have been part of a group that has generated rumors about us that we knew were not true. Then one by one our friends took the side of the group against us until we were standing alone and no longer part of the group. It is a horrible experience. When Jesus quotes Psalm 22, he is seeking to bring to the mind of his executioners that they are playing the role of the scapegoating community. If someone were to quote the opening line of Psalm 23 “The Lord is my shepherd” most of us could go on and recite a good portion of that psalm. By quoting the opening line of Psalm 22, Jesus is not saying that God has abandoned him; he is bringing to mind the entire context of the psalm. One might object that this is not necessarily the case but it is important to note that breathing was very difficult on a cross and extended conversations and dialogues would have been both very painful and virtually impossible.

But that is not all. Psalm 22 is a psalm of vindication. At the end the psalmist knows that “God is not far off” and that “God has not hidden his face.” The Psalmist knows that God has neither “despised nor disdained the suffering of the afflicted one.” Ultimately Psalm 22 is a cry of hope. The Jews who heard Jesus cry the first words of Psalm 22 from the cross heard not only the sense of abandonment, but also the hope, because they knew that Psalm! This hope is reflected in all of the passion predictions of Jesus who, knowing he will suffer at the hands of an angry mob, still believes, in spite of everything to the contrary in his circumstances, that God will deliver him by vindicating his innocence. For Jesus, as for the psalmist, God is not some far off angry deity. It is the crowd who is angry, who requires sacrifice of the innocent. God is caring and present with the victim. A final point of the recitation of Psalm 22 from the crucified Jesus is a theological one: unlike the belief of the mob and the Jewish leaders that they are doing God a favor in getting rid of the troublemaker Jesus, the use of Psalm 22 is an indication that God does not authorize humanity’s sacrifice of Christ. God is not seen as the actor who sacrifices His Son; rather, this sacrificial death is one that God rejects. Thus God is ‘absent’, not ‘present’, in our sacrificial processes. When, at his baptism (Mark 1:9-11), God says to Jesus that “You are my beloved son”, we should not suppose that anything ever changed in Jesus’ relationship to his Abba. If there is one constant we can rely on it is that the relationship between Jesus and God never changed.

Hebrews 13:5 tells us that God said that, “[n]ever will I leave you, never will I forsake you.” In Deuteronomy 4:31 we are assured that God, “will not abandon you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers, which He swore to them by oath.”

Psalm 22’s first stanza reads, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?”

Jesus was quoting the Word of God, to express His suffering on the Cross and bearing our sicknesses, diseases and afflictions.

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