Here it is:

Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? (Mark 15: 34)

Firstly, let’s get the preliminaries out of the road. Given that Jesus was dying on an execution stake at the time, when no male disciples were present, and the female disciples were at a distance, it seems unlikely that anyone actually heard these words, which are the first verse of Psalm 22 in the Hebrew bible. Scholars suggest that it’s more likely he gave a “cry of dereliction,” which was later interpreted in these words. Ah, yes, that’s a well-known sort of cry, immediately distinguishable from a cry of pain, a cry of anger, a cry for help, or a cry of surprise at the arrival of death. The idea that scholars sitting in their studies would be good at reconstructing the agony of a person on an execution stake is a little dubious.

No, the fact is that the gospel writer Mark, about whom we know nothing, presented Jesus as shouting these words, because they communicated his view of the meaning of Jesus’ execution: his Jesus says these words. A glance at the psalm shows how the gospel writers, starting with Mark, used it in their narrative of the crucifixion.

…….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;
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.

For dogs are all around me;
a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shrivelled;
I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots………..

Mark borrowed from the psalm the details of the division of Jesus’ clothing amongst his killers, and of the jeering of his opponents. But his most vivid borrowing is the Psalm’s first line, “My God why have you abandoned me?” because it acknowledges the truth that you don’t end up on an execution stake without being abandoned – by human help and also by God. If like Jesus we trust in a loving God, then we also have to trust that if he could have intervened to save Jesus, he would have. We have to conclude that God abandoned him because he couldn’t intervene, just as he cannot intervene to stop the spread of the Coronavirus, or the rapid warming of the earth. But what’s the point of a God who can’t intervene to help? Wouldn’t it be better just to admit that there is no God? This issue is what makes Jesus’ reported words so terrible.

Grunewald Crucifixion

Yes, yes, some may reply, but there’s the resurrection for goodness’ sake! There’s God’s intervention, delayed to be sure, but totally effective. The resurrection, however, is not a public event; it is only evident to the eye of faith; God’s intervention in raising Jesus to life is not available to the Chief Priests or the Romans but only to the Maries and Salome and Peter and John and the other disciples. God acts in the world only by persuasion and never by brute force. Paul’s phrase for this truth is “the weakness of God.”

This word of abandonment upsets so many religious apple carts that I sometimes wish that Jesus had not said it, or that Mark had not made it part of his story. It requires us to leave behind a whole load of religious theory and practice that is based on the idea that God will do things for us if only we sing the right hymns and pray the right prayers; and instead to discover new words and actions that are appropriate for a God who only ever offers love. How do we talk about a creator who persuades the particles of matter to form a universe or the particles of a human being to become an eternal person?

And yet…. it’s realistic isn’t it? God abandons us to deal with the world as best we may. He/she does not even force a spiritual presence on our souls, only an invitation to trust in absence of compelling evidence. Is such a God worth our worship, a God who does nothing for us, but only enables us to do it for ourselves? Is such a God worth our prayers if no miracles are on the menu? Yet all the time we have known that God leaves us to get on with it, because we are already inventing a new cure for the Coronavirus rather than a new prayer.

There is a real, truthful, honest faith, struggling to escape from the trappings of religion. It will not be popular, but it will do honour to the one who is the father/mother of Jesus and of us all.

Here it is:

“I tell you then, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:24)

Mince (Scots) = nonsense

This is mince, surely; a simple untruth that anyone who has ever suffered can refute. It denies the most basic facts of life. The young woman who had just given birth to her first child, praying that she would survive the leukaemia with which she had just been diagnosed, died within three months. The hundreds of people praying for David Haining to be spared death as a hostage of ISIS, learned of his decapitation, or saw it. Over 52 years of ministry I have often prayed for parishioners to be spared harsh suffering, only to acknowledge that they were not.

And I suppose I must add, Jesus of Nazareth who prayed that he might not undergo crucifixion, ended up on an execution stake. Apologists for Jesus will point out that he asked to be spared but also for God’s will to be done. Ah, yes, if in the end all our prayers are guarded by “nevertheless, your will be done,” there will never be any problem, for whatever happens can be called the will of God. Obviously, that procedure makes nonsense of prayer, and especially of Jesus’ teaching above. If he just meant, pray for God’s will and you’ll get it, he should have said so. Moreover the interpretation of every human disaster as God’s will, doesn’t do much for the reputation of God.

Well then, maybe the words don’t mean what they appear to mean? Maybe biblical scholars can help us solve the problem?

The context of Jesus’ words is the story of him cursing a fig tree for being fruitless and returning the next day to find it withered. Between the cursing and its result is the story of Jesus’ attack on the temple traders. Obviously Mark is using the fig tree as an image of the temple, which in Mark’s day had been destroyed. When Jesus said that faith could move “this mountain” he was doubtless meaning the temple mount. It’s possible that the teaching about prayer is primarily meant to reflect the prophetic action -parable of the fig tree: the temple was destroyed.

That however takes us away from the plain meaning of Jesus’ words.

Ah, well, maybe they are not the words of Jesus, but of Mark, or of Mark’s source? It is always possible that what the Gospel writers attribute to Jesus is a creation of the tradition they received. All scholars reckon with the possibility that the representation of Jesus’ actions and words in the gospels reflects varying traditions and their own creativity. Nevertheless, Jesus’ confidence in prayer is well-attested throughout the gospels.

The circle of the sun takes in the arms of the cross. Defeat and victory are simultaneous realities.

But no other account of his teaching on prayer states this confidence quite as baldly as Mark. For example, Matthew who composed his gospel using a copy of Mark’s, recounts the same teaching in slightly different words:

“If you have faith, everything you ask for in prayer, you will receive.”

Matthew obviously considered Mark’s bit about “believing you have received it”, cut it out, and opted for a more general assurance, which still asserts confidence in prayer but leaves room for interpretation. But can I think that all the prayers mentioned at the start of this blog, went unanswered because they lacked faith? Surely not. So, although different, Matthew’s version is no more acceptable.

Back to Mark, then. It seems he thought the instruction to believe one had received the thing prayed for, was important. Could it be something I haven’t ever done?

I prayed for my brother that his cancer would be cured, but he died of it. What would it mean for me to have believed that I had received what I asked for?

So, I guess, that while it was perfectly evident to me that he was dying painfully of cancer, I would have held in my mind the counterfactual conviction that he was being healed and would live, even if this conviction was certainly not in his mind. That seems mince and yet it does bear some resemblance to what was in my mind. I do believe that death can be healing and that we will have life in God. The teaching given by Jesus in Mark brings close together the worldly fact and the heavenly counter-fact, so that the contradiction is stark, as it is in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus: the women go his tomb to be told, “He is not here, he is risen.” In my faith, the dead body and the risen body are equal parts of the one reality; we are at one and the same time in the material universe and in God. There is no room in my faith for conjuring tricks: my brother died and we cremated his body. Jesus died and his body is in Palestine. People really suffer but their prayer for healing is being answered.

The version of Jesus’ teaching given by Mark emphasises the role of human imagination: as I pray I have to imagine the vast universe with all its suffering as included in the reality of God, and to believe I have been answered. Of course it may be mince, and often my doubt is so painful I wish he hadn’t said it.