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.
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.