Sixth Sunday in Lent – April 13, 2014

Reading 1: Reading 2:Reading 3:Reading 4:
Isaiah 50:4-9aPsalm 31:9-16Philippians 2:5-11Matthew 27:11-54

By Marjorie Suchocki

With some reluctance I move from the texts in John, with their amazing theological insight, into the synoptic Matthew. Each of the gospels gives its own unique perspective on the culminating event of crucifixion/resurrection. John’s account is deeply personal, beginning with the intimacy of foot washing at the last supper, the words of comfort and encouragement to the fearful disciples, the depths of prayer in Gethsemane, and then the culminating “lifting up” language that connects the crucifixion with the glory prefigured in the book of signs. Matthew’s language is more objective in keeping with his primary intent throughout his gospel to show Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophecies of Hebrew scripture. John draws us into participation; Matthew teaches us, almost by placing us in the observing crowd. Both perspectives are necessary; both overwhelm us with the horror and wonder that this Holy One is crucified.

In the tenth verse of chapter 27, Matthew inaugurates his account of the crucifixion by calling attention to the prophecy in Zechariah 11 concerning the thirty pieces of silver. He then gives us Jesus before Pilate. The culmination of that scene echoes a passage from Deuteronomy 21:6-8, where one washes one’s hands to disavow participation in the death of another. Pilate washes his hands, declaring his innocence even as he tells the people to vent their rage against Jesus: they may crucify him. One could ponder the disavowal of responsibility.

What follows is the scourging and the mocking, almost too painful to contemplate. And yet, of course, the pain intensifies in verses 33 through 54 in the description of the actual crucifixion of this One who is so close to our hearts. Matthew gives only one of what we have come to call the “seven last words of Christ,” and that single statement is also repeated in Mark 15:34. It is the only one of the recorded words given in two gospels. So let us ponder it for a while: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

These are the first words of Psalm 22. Many scholars understand Jesus to be calling out the Psalm in his agony, and if this is so Jesus is remembering a Psalm that begins in agony and ends in exultation. Jesus was so immersed in the Hebrew Scriptures that this explanation certainly is consistent with his life. But coming straight from our own immersion in the gospel of John these last few weeks, we might also consider the cry as part of Christ’s work of revelation. If Jesus is God with us, God for us, and if God through Jesus reveals his presence with us in our pain, then these words of forsakenness in Matthew take on particularly deep meaning. It is one thing to experience the presence of God: in such a spiritual state, one could dare almost anything. But Jesus is expressing the experience of God-forsakenness. Is it true? Did God really forsake Jesus on the cross? Is it as some would have it: there is so much sin bound up in Jesus as he takes on the sins of the world that God can’t stand the sight of him, and turns away in divine displeasure? Does God forsake Jesus? And if God forsakes Jesus, how could I ever expect God not to abandon me? What hope is there, if God abandons this supremely Righteous One, for whatever redemptive reason?

But knowing the gospel of John, we must see it differently. The worst of our experiences is indeed the sense of abandonment, whether through the loss of those we love, the rejection by those we need, or the sense that we have no place, no place at all, anywhere, in all the world. Forsakenness! But through John we learn that God is for us, God is with us, not just in the good times–but in the worst of times. Pain, whether spiritual or physical, is an all-commanding presence, a jealous possessor, driving out every alternative thought, every alternative experience, every possible resource. These words of abandonment, of God-forsakenness, take us into the depths of Jesus’ experience on the cross. Even he, revelation of God, God for us, knows what it is like to feel totally forsaken, totally abandoned. He tastes our humanity in its bitterest dregs. Is God yet with him? Of course. How can the omnipresent God be absent? But pain can drive the sense of that Ultimate Presence from our consciousness even as we are yet surrounded by God’s Presence. Jesus feels abandonment; yet he is not abandoned. We feel abandonment, too. But we are not abandoned: God is with us. Pain can drive the sense of God away, but it is not possible for pain to drive God’s own self away. God is with us.

How do we know that God continues with Jesus on that cross? The other words, of course, tell the truth. Matthew gives the word of spiritual agony; John gives the word (I am thirsty) of physical agony. Jesus tastes the fullness of human pain. Nonetheless, look at the other words recorded: “Today you shall be with me in Paradise,” “Father forgive them, they know not what they do,” “Son, behold your mother; mother, behold your son,” “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” and “It is finished.” In the midst of spiritual and physical pain, Jesus continues to love–love toward the fellow-sufferer, love toward his persecutors, love toward his friend and toward his mother. Pain cannot crucify love, not even the pain of abandonment. The love of Christ, the love of God, actively endures, even when the express feeling of that love is absent. The word of abandonment given in Matthew and in Mark is a word that underlines the depths of identification of God in Christ with us, no matter what.

And the answer to all this? Thank God, it is resurrection. The pain of this final Sunday in Lent is only endurable because we know it leads to Easter. So live this Holy Week with hearts open to the passion of God; let yourselves enter into the pathos of that Last Supper, the agony of those Friday hours, for the sake of the hope of that returning light in the Saturday vigil, in the return of the “alleluia!!!”, into the ultimate transforming joy that because of Good Friday–God’s Friday–we yet rise again with Christ. We are, because of that Friday, an Easter people. God is with us. Amen.