Did God Abandon Jesus on the Cross?
At the point of his death on the cross, Jesus Christ uttered the famous words, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”
Did God abandon Jesus in his most desperate hour?
Some Bible teachers believe at that point Jesus took on all the sin of the world and God turned his back on him. That was part of the terrible price that had to be paid.
Or was it the other way around? Instead of God abandoning Jesus, did Jesus abandon God? In other words, at the very end, did Jesus despair? Did he lose hope? Did he stop trusting in God his father? Did he enter into the depths of darkness and lose touch with God? Did he give in to the weight of loneliness, pain and anguish? Did he give up?
I don’t think God abandoned Jesus, nor do I believe Jesus abandoned God. Instead, when we read the Gospel closely we understand that, on every step of his journey through Holy Week, Jesus was fulfilling, by his words and actions, the mystery of the Old Testament prophecies. He said this himself after he being taken prisoner: “Do you think I cannot call upon my Father and he will not provide me at this moment with more than twelve legions of angels? But then how would the scriptures be fulfilled which say that it must come to pass this way?” (Mt. 26:53-54).
Every step of the way, from his triumphal procession into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the Last Supper and the final moments on the cross, Jesus was fulfilling various prophecies from the Old Testament. Among them were his words from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
While this was most certainly a cry from the depths of his broken heart, Jesus was not expressing his personal despair or lack of faith. Rather than crying out his feeling that God had abandoned him, he was in fact doing exactly the opposite. Once we realize that Jesus is quoting scripture, and we look at the Old Testament passage he is quoting, everything becomes clear.
A Cry From The Heart
When he says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus is quoting the first verse of Psalm 22. The Gospel writers often use the literary shorthand called allusion. With an allusion, the writer uses a quotation to refer to an entire passage or story which comes to life in the particular situation he is describing. We know Jesus would have memorized large portions of the Old Testament because that was the method of religious education used by the Jewish teachers.
It is astounding to read Psalm 22 because it points forward in amazing detail to Jesus’ whole ordeal. The author of the psalm says, “I am scorned by everyone, despised by the people who mock me, they shake their heads at me, ‘You relied on the Lord — let him deliver you if he loves you, let him rescue you!’” Further on he writes, “Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.”
Despite the terrible ordeal, the psalmist does not despair. He does not give up on God and God does not give up on him. He writes, “For God has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch. He did not turn away from me, but he heard me when I cried out.” Then in the final verses, the psalmist sees that his suffering has a far greater significance. God will use the suffering to reveal his glory in the world. “All the ends of the earth will worship and turn to the Lord … the generations to come will be told of the Lord that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn the deliverance you have brought.”
It is therefore no mistake that in Matthew’s gospel, immediately after Jesus dies, it is the Roman centurion — a representative of “all the nations of the earth” who acknowledges in faith that “This truly was the Son of God.”
God Doesn’t Give Up
During the present pandemic crisis, it may be tempting to think that God has given up on us and we may be tempted to give up on God. However, the promise echoes through the Scriptures that God will never leave us or forsake us.
Even in his darkest hour, Jesus did not lose faith. He did not give up on God and God did not give up on him. In quoting Psalm 22 from the cross, Jesus was affirming not only that God did not abandon him, but that, through his terrible suffering, God was working out a far greater and more mysterious plan for mankind. It was through that ordeal that his power was made perfect in weakness. And if we keep the faith, it is through the trials we face that God’s most perfect will can be accomplished.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic priest working in South Carolina. Read his blog, follow his podcasts and browse his books at dwightlongenecker.com.