Most of the questions that Jesus asks are questions that are directed to others. And ostensibly, if you believe that Scripture is a living, breathing word, they are also questions that Jesus asks us. “Is life not more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?” “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’, and not do what I say?” “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” As such, these questions press our faith to deeper levels of thought and action.
But one question Jesus asks is not directed to us. The question Jesus asks is directed not to us, but to God, his heavenly Father. And it is a rather heavy question, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Take note: this is the very last thing that Jesus says before his death, before he breathes his last earthly breath and gives up his spirit. The thing that really stands in such stark contrast to this moment in the last moment of Jesus’ life is one dramatic moment that happens a few hours before.
What happens before this is that the authorities bring Jesus before Pilate, the ruling govenor – a political figure, not a religious one. The drama makes it clear that Pilate is caught between a rock and a hard place. He had to keep the peace in a region of the empire of Rome that was easily sparked into violent revolt, but to keep the peace in this moment he will have to appease the religious leaders by condemning an obviously innocent man to death.
I think Pilate for all his military and political savvy is a man with a real conscious. In John’s Gospel, he has an exchange with Jesus when he shows that he is a genuine seeker, a man whose whole life has found that the Truth has eluded him. He wants to know the truth, and the truth is standing right in front of him – embodied in the person of Jesus – and yet he can’t see him. Sadly, as a result, the Truth will elude him once again, because he’s not able to do what is really important for anyone who is faced with the truth: he’s unable to take a leap of faith.
Truth is not truth because it can be proven absolutely; Truth is truth in spite of being proven absolutely and ultimately it takes a leap of faith to make it a reality in your life.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, Pilate is amazed that Jesus makes no reply in his own defense of the charges that the religious leaders are bringing against him. Now, something happens in this moment. While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat…his wife sent him a message…Now think about that for a moment. At that very moment Pilate is in the judge’s chair, holding within his hands, if you will, an innocent man’s life in the balance. Do you see the irony in that moment in the last moment of Jesus’ life? Pilate in the judge’s seat deciding the fate of an innocent man, Jesus the Son of the Living God, who is ultimately the judge of us all – but who remains silent full of grace instead of condemning us.
Now, what is perhaps even more dramatic is that in this moment in the last moment of Jesus’ life is the very moment when Pilate makes his grand offer to release Jesus. Pilate knows Jesus has done nothing warranting death – but he’s caught between a rock and a hard place – and so he provides one chance for this travesty not to happen. He offers grandly that Jesus be released, and that instead they condemn a hardened criminal named Barabbas. “Here,” Pilate says, “take this loser Barabbas, not this man who as done nothing deserving death.” But the crowd instead shouts to Pilate, “Give us Barabbas. Crucify Jesus!”
And so this question that Jesus asks, a question not directed to us, but to God is seen against the backdrop of the crowd shouting “Crucify him!” when they had a chance to let Jesus live, to set the Truth free. After everything they have seen and heard, everything they know is right and good, after everything they have encountered in Jesus – they still fail to see or don’t care enough to see the Truth right in their midst.
Ultimately, we want what we want, don’t we? We are people bent more on our desires rather than the desire for Truth, or the desires of God…and we call that Sin – plain and simple. I hope you can hear that word without all the attendent baggage…
Our Bible study group was dealing with Luke 8 when the disciples are in the boat with Jesus. It’s the story about the time that Jesus is sleeping, and a terrible storm suddenly comes up, swamping the boat. Luke says, “They were in great danger.” The disciples in fear wake Jesus, and after rebuking the storm, Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “Where is your faith?” One of the things we noted about that story is that the antithesis to faith is not doubt about God or who Jesus really is, but fear that leads to an inability to trust Jesus for everything you need.
And this gave our Bible study a chance to get real about what we fear the most. What I fear the most aren’t things like spiders – although I am freaked out about spiders. What I fear the most isn’t the lost of someone I love – although I’m not sure my heart would ever recover. What I fear the most is this: What God might ask of me that would require more than I am willing to give. I have to be honest about that…that what God might ask of me might be beyond what I’m willing to give. We want what we want, don’t we?
As people, we are often people bent more on our desires rather than the desire for Truth, or the desires of God. We more often than not have stood with the crowds time and time again in our lives and joined the deafening chorus of the crowd and shouted with them, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” It’s a hard reality for us to face…but I do think it is true, don’t you? I don’t have to tinker with my soul too much to know that that is true for me…Isn’t it also true for you? In the face of God’s overwhelming love, witnessing that love so completely in Jesus, we shout “Crucify!”
Jesus asks on this day, with his last dying breath, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Church Fathers and Mothers – the voices of the Church throughout the centuries – interpreted Jesus’ question, not as a moment of self-doubt, not as a moment of angst as we understand it today, but they understood Jesus’ question as really a confession of deep and abiding faith. To his last breath Jesus, with this question, acknowledges and honors God, declares that he is no adversary of God (Chrysostom, circa 380 CE, Homily LXXXVIII). Jesus is quoting a verse in Psalms 22 and thus bears witness to the Old Testament even in his last moments, and that through it all is of one mind with the One who created him.
Let me be honest: I’m not sure what to do with that. I am not sure where to go from here. Not sure what to do with what I have just declared. So let me just ask you: If this is true, that this question of Jesus to his heavenly Father is not a moment of dark, ethereal crisis of questioning the love of God, but a clear statement of faith and trust, what do you do with that? How do you answer, now that we have said that, “So what?” What are the practical implications for your life and mine? I can’t answer that for anyone else; I too freaked out about what the implications might be for me!
But here’s what I think I can say. Two things. First, that although the people confused Jesus’ words as him calling down Elijah to rescue him, that is not what Jesus is doing. Jesus, like the Psalmist, is confessing what Thomas G. Long noted in his commentary on Matthew, “that there will be no quick rescue, that God’s salvation will not come in a way that spares him the mockery, the suffering, and the pain. There will be no Elijah swinging down from heaven brandishing a sword and cutting Jesus loose from the cross just in the nick of time. There will be no squadron of angels, no army of liberation, no last-minute surprises from Peter and the disciples waiting in the wings for their golden chance. This is not a Hollywood movie where the good guys never die; this is the story of Jesus the Messiah who must ‘undergo great suffering…and be killed.’” (Matthew 16:21)
Here’s what else I can say: Jesus cries out because he accepts the reality of his death, but this is not a scream of despair. Jesus is not whimpering pathetically; he cries out with a loud voice, as one in command of his life and his death. Jesus is quoting a psalm of salvation, not cursing his fate. His death is not a loss of hope; it is the fulfillment of God’s promise. Jesus forsaken, like the psalmist before him, trusts God to save, not by magically eliminating all the pain and suffering, but by working beyond human knowing in and through pain and suffering.
You know what I think? What I really think? If I am ever to be a person that wants what God wants, rather than wanting what I want, (we want what we want), the courage will somehow come from this question Jesus asks God, and not from all the questions that Jesus asks us.