A reflection for Good Friday: ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’
(Matthew 27.46 & Mark 15.34)
I want to offer a reflection on this specific utterance which we find in the earliest gospel account (Mark) as the only saying of Jesus from the cross.
I’d like to make some suggestions about what we might see in this saying, about how we should think of Jesus and his significance. For Christians, the death of Jesus is the primary revelation of God’s salvation and so I would like to reflect on the nature of that salvation, as indicated to us through this specific saying from the cross.
To begin, I think it is important to say that you get a very specific, and perhaps limited view, if this is the only word from the cross you look at. There are multiple accounts in the New Testament and the plurality of perspectives is significant. But it is important to start here.
It is the only saying that Mark and Matthew have: so both of them thought that it is enough to tell the story with just this one.
‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ This sentence is actually from Psalm 22. It is not surprising that a devout Jew would recite scripture during their dying moments.
What is surprising is this sense of utter abandonment, given all else that is in the Gospels about Jesus and his closeness to God. It is devastation to the 100th degree. Jesus feels totally alone: God has left him for dead.
That is what it means: yet, in an amazing paradox, as Moltmann rightly calls it, this cry of dereliction is addressed to God: the God who it seems has abandoned him. So here we have what Paul Tilllich called Jesus’ ‘permanent unity with God’: even in this utter devastation, he is seeking God, reaching out to the Father, offering who he genuinely is, to God.
He is not denying anything. He is not pretending that this is anything other than a world-shattering loss. Yet, he is also saying: ‘and even this I will hold towards God’. It is a Job-like utterance: ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.’ Job 13.15.
Now as to its meaning: quite clearly, this expresses the sense of loss of God, the sense of abandonment we have been describing.
What is also interesting is that response of the hearers. They say that he is calling out to Elijah. There was a popular belief that Elijah the Prophet would come from heaven to rescue people in desperate situations, and in the Talmud there is a story of a person who was rescued from the cruelty of the Romans, by Elijah.
This popular belief is perhaps why they thought he was calling out to Elijah. But Elijah did not come to rescue him. Instead, we are told that Jesus made another loud cry: no words here, just a loud cry and died.
The word used here is unusual, ekpneueo: you can see that it has that idea of breath, related to the pneuma term for breath or spirit. Most likely, people who died from crucifixion died from asphyxiation and blood loss. They were hanging, and could not breath properly, and would lose much blood (apart already from the whipping), and these injuries would soon lead to heart failure as well.
Abandoned by God: so what does this tell us about who Jesus is?
This saying very clearly tells us about the one who is introduced by Mark as ‘the son of God’: he enters into the worst places of human suffering and the ultimate loss of meaning and hope. What does it tell us, for our own understanding of his significance?
In itself, it tells us some things—but if we believe also that this is not the end of Jesus, it carries even more power and significance. My own view, though, is that we should not presume that outcome or ultimate belief. Not yet: the story has to be allowed to have its own significance. We should not rush on to Easter Day, before we have taken Good Friday and Holy Saturday seriously.
First, then, it tells us something about identification: Jesus is one with all the sufferers, all the abandoned, all the condemned.
Second, it tells us that he is not a pretender. He does not deny the anguish, pain, and deepest spiritual angst that any person can experience. He is truthful to the last. This is a strong assertion against those who, in ancient times and still today, suggest that Jesus only appeared to suffer, or that his physical life was of no real significance. This is no mere ‘appearance’. It is real flesh and blood, real pain, and real death.
Third, it tells us that he still believes that he matters to God: his faith in God reaches beyond how things look, how things feel. He holds this paradox in his hands. It is impossible, and yet he has nowhere else to go but to God.
Now that can be interpreted in two ways: and maybe they are both true. He might be saying, ‘Oh God, you seem to have given up on me but I have not given up on you.’ Or he might be saying, ‘Oh God, I have no idea what the hell you are doing, and I don’t even know if you care, but you are the only hope I have!’
So then, with this saying, what does it suggest to us about Jesus and his salvation, or salvation from God?
First, this saying is the one to which Liberation Theology and many other theologies of struggle have turned. This is the Jesus of the poor, the destitute, the saviour of the oppressed: in the sense that they identify with him.
This is about struggle, pain and abandonment: and about how God is somehow at work even when God appears not to care, or to be absent. This is not so much an image of salvation, in itself, as the paradox of promise. This cries out for what is not yet, not happening: and yet it asserts that it is happening. This dying Jesus is the very one in whom you should hope.
This abandoned one is the son of God, as Moltmann puts it. This is God at work when God seems absent. This is God with and in the suffering, poor and oppressed: a God in the suffering.
So this is not a theology that focusses on the consequences or implications of Jesus’ death: it focusses on the fact of Jesus, the incarnate son of God actually is present in suffering.
Salvation, here, is about being with God: not through rescue (Elijah doesn’t come) but through the struggle, through the pain—the saviour is present, right there, hanging on the cross—that’s Mark’s image.
Resurrection faith makes this assertion possible, in the sense that it shows that Jesus was truly God’s son. It shows that he was not wrong, to trust in God.
But this view of salvation suggests that we must not rush on to a happy ending, because if we do we will miss the point.
And the point is that this is a God moment, this is God: here is your God, hanging on a cross, experiencing abandonment, suffering, paradox: and yes this is the moment of hope. Hope is not denial of the agony, it is holding on to God in the midst of the struggle, or if you like holding out for God in the midst of the struggle.
Holding out does not suggest a kind of ‘victory’ of faith, it is just sheer desperation, and yet even this is a form of faith.