Not what you suppose

Lent5

Jesus’ Cry of Dereliction is shorthand for the entirety of Ps 22 for which it is the opening line. Psalm 22 is a scapegoat psalm about an innocent servant abandoned and persecuted by his contemporaries but not abandoned by God. For Christ to reference this particular psalm on the Cross is for him to say quite the opposite of what many take his cry, divorced from its context, to mean. Many see here evidence that the Son is in fact abandoned by the Father, that the crowds are right in believing God to have abandoned and forsaken him. For these, this abandonment of sacred scapegoating defines God to the nitty-gritty of triniarian deity itself, that God’s own experience of himself, his own trinitarian oneness, was shattered as God forsook God. Nothing in God was not defined by this separation.

This is theological madness, of course. Seen in its proper context (see Rikk Watts on the use of the Psalms in Mark’s gospel), Jesus’s cry says just the opposite. By calling upon Psalm 22, quite literally Jesus is declaring:

“I am not forsaken by God — as you all think! I have not been abandoned by God — as you all suppose. God will vindicate me, just like he did the innocent servant of Psalm 22! Wait and see.”

All Jesus needs to say in order to declare this is what he actually says, Psalm 22’s opening line. Resurrection proved Jesus right, of course. God is not on the side of the scapegoating crowd abandoning Jesus. That’s not the what the Cry is about. Where is the Father while Jesus is on the Cross? He is right where Jesus said he would be — “…with me.” (John 16.31-33). I only wish my own (evangelical) tribe believed it.

The happiest, most wonderful Resurrection Sunday to you all!

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6 comments on “Not what you suppose

  1. Christ is Risen!

    I must admit: I’m not convinced of your interpretation. Have you read Joel Marcus?

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    • Tom says:

      That Jesus is referencing Ps 22 seems undeniable to me (though I know some deny any link). I’m not familiar with Joel. I’d be glad to read him.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Tom says:

      I’m reading an excerpt from Marcus’ Jesus and the Holocaust, and a few comments by others on his reading of the Cry. It seems Marcus reads the Cry as revealing the truth of Jesus experiencing the Father’s forsakenness. God rejects and abandons his son. Nothing new there. Marcus adds to this, one commentator notes, that Jesus becomes a “possessed man” (possessed by a demon). Interesting.

      If I thought our salvation required God to visit our punishment upon an innocent scapegoat victim in order to save us, no doubt the Cry would be the place to construct that theory. After all, there is no other evidence. This one Cry is it.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Tom says:

    Here’s a portion from Marcus’ book on meaning of Jesus’ Cry (https://eerdword.com/2017/04/14/the-dying-of-the-light/)

    In Luke the atmosphere surrounding Jesus’s death is serene and triumphant: Jesus graciously forgives his crucifiers, sovereignly promises the repentant criminal a place with him in paradise, and then hands back his life-breath to the heavenly Father who bestowed it. In Mark, however, the atmosphere is anything but serene. Jesus cries out with a loud voice, and instead of uttering words of reconciliation and faith, he shouts into the engulfing darkness the words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

    These words, needless to say, have caused problems for Christian theologians from the beginning of the Church. If Jesus was the Son of God, indeed even God himself, as the Church came to believe, how could he have experienced abandonment by God? Does not this so-called “cry of dereliction” make a mockery of the Church’s claim that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God?

    It is not, therefore, surprising that there have been numerous attempts to alter the cry of dereliction or to explain it away. Both Luke and John change it to a citation from the same group of Psalms, but one that presents a more palatable picture of Jesus. Some scholars try to deal with it by arguing that the cry rests on a mistranslation from the Aramaic. Others point out that, while Psalm 22 begins on a note of complaint about abandonment and suffering, it ends with a triumphant declaration of trust in God’s power to save the sufferer and bring redemption to the ends of the earth.

    These, however, are desperate maneuvers. We must deal with Mark’s text as it stands, not with some hypothetical reconstruction of it. And in Mark itself, Jesus does not allude to the triumphant end of the psalm but to the desperate anguish of its beginning—a connection which seems totally appropriate for a man undergoing the cruel pains of crucifixion.

    Indeed, the true meaning of Jesus’s last cries in Mark may be, not “better” than it appears to be, but “worse.” At his death, Jesus cries out “with a loud voice.” Previously in the Gospel, the only beings who have cried out “with a loud voice” are the demons (Mark 1:26; 5:7). The implication, therefore, may be that Jesus’ last cry is demonic. So fully has he entered into the human condition that he even shares the lostness of human beings who feel themselves cut off from God and in the grip of inimical, anti-God forces.

    Such an interpretation would go along with the overall context of the scene of Jesus’ death in Mark. To borrow Dylan Thomas’s phrase, Mark describes “the dying of the light.” His scene is not just one in which a dying person’s vision is darkened, as in Homer’s formula, “darkness covered his eyes,” or as in the Emily Dickinson poem presented on pages 61–62, which closes with the startlingly effective line, “I could not see to see.” The scene in Mark, rather, is one of cosmic darkness. This darkness is said to cover either “the whole land” or “the whole earth.” The latter translation is particularly attractive because it enables us to see the scene of Jesus’ death as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Amos, talking about the Day of the Lord, the day upon which God’s judgment would fall on sinful humanity, reported God’s words as: “On that day . . . I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight” (Amos 8:9). Mark’s report of darkness over the earth from noon on is probably to be seen as a fulfillment of this prophecy.

    Viewed from this perspective, the day of Jesus’s crucifixion is the day of judgment, the day upon which the anti-God forces will be let loose upon the earth to kill the old world off and, unwittingly, to bring in the new one. For there is a secret, hidden player in this drama of the end of days. He was introduced near the beginning of the Gospel, where he engaged Jesus in something like hand-to-hand combat (Mark 1:12–13), but subsequently he seemed to fade from view. Yet from time to time hints about his continued presence and malevolent activity have popped up. Although rarely mentioned by name, he has been working away behind the scenes, not resting for a moment, stirring up opposition to Jesus wherever he can, finally using his human instruments to drive him to the cross. The cosmic darkness in the crucifixion scene is the culmination and concrete expression of this adversary’s never-ending quest for more power, more influence, more destruction…

    The darkness at Jesus’ crucifixion should not be explained away in some pseudoscientific fashion as the result of an eclipse or a freakish, temporary atmospheric phenomenon. It is the darkness of death, the darkness of the kingdom of Satan, the darkness of the old age of sin and death crushing underneath it the man who had thought to change the course of the world and redirect it into the realms of light. And that man, feeling himself swallowed up by the darkness he had hoped to conquer through God’s help, feeling himself cut off from the God who has been his life, cries out in horror at his apparent mistake: “My God, my God: why have you forsaken me?”

    He’s at least very clear. No doubting his position.

    None of Marcus’ descriptions of those who disagree with his view hold, though. Still, his is the reigning Evangelical position. It’s not a view from within which I can make plausible sense of the Gospel. Marcus believes that on the Cross Jesus feels himself so cut off, so forsaken by God, he believes himself to have “made a mistake” regarding his death to be the means of “conquering darkness.” Jesus dies convinced evil won the day and God had forsaken him.

    Thank God there are other exegetically preferrable options to this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jesus _goes_ to the cross in trust, as a self-offering, trusting that he will be vindicated; Marcus is simply trying to be honest about the Markan Gospel. I am not sure his interpretation is right, now that I have given your original post another read-through when I’m not at work, chronically exhausted, with broken attention (and perhaps at the end of a rather large glass of wine, as that’s often my reading situation at night after putting the little one to bed).

      Having read through the psalm (22) again, I can see the plausibility of your interpretation. Marcus notes details that require a plausible account in a way that differs from the one he gives, though, and the motives for alternative interpretation need to be honest, pure.

      In Marcus’ defense, I’ll share some of what he wrote in his Anchor Bible commentary (the 2nd volume, clearly).

      p.1061:
      “The subsection that will terminate with Jesus’ death begins, appropriately enough, with darkness falling over the whole world. This darkness is probably not a historical reminiscence but a symbolic feature with several dimensions. It may be a sign of Jesus’ stature; eclipses and other unusual astronomical events were often associated with the death of great people, such as Julius Caesar [he cites Virgil, Plutarch, Josephus]. They could be a sign that God or nature was mourning the deceased [cites Diogenes Laertius] or that the latter had been divine or was in the process of becoming so [Plutarch, Dio Cassius, _Testament of Adam_]. The supernatural darkness, therefore, may be one of the reasons that the centurion acclaims Jesus as God’s son […].”

      p.1063:
      Regarding Ps. 22: “This psalm has previously been alluded to in the narratives of the division of Jesus’ garments (15:24; cf. Ps 22:18) and of the mockery of the crucified (15:29-32; cf. Ps. 22:6-8), and it was interpreted in the Second Temple period as a prophecy of the sufferings of the righteous in the end-time (see Marcus, _Way_, 177-179). As the psalm continues, moreover, the speaker complains of God’s sudden distance from him (“Why are you so far away from my salvation? …Do not be far from me!” 22:1b, 11, my transl.), which is congruent with the divine absence implied by the Markan darkness. As Williams (“Background,” 10-11) points out, therefore, something of the psalm’s context seems to be evoked by the citation of its first verse.

      “But how much of the context? Some recent exegetes have noted that Psalm 22 ends triumphantly, with the proclamation of God’s dominion to the ends of the earth (22:27-8), and some have sought to lessen the difficulty of our verse by positing that when Jesus quoted the first verse, he had the triumphant ending in mind (see, e.g., Gese, “Psalm 22,” 192-196; Pesch, 2.494; Trudinger, “Eli”). But while it seems likely that the psalm’s ending was in _Mark’s_ mind as he continued his story (see the COMMENT on 15:38-39), that victorious ending must not be allowed to override its distressed beginning in exegesis of Jesus’ cry of dereliction. This psalm, like several other Righteous Sufferer laments (e.g., Psalms 6, 31, 69, 71, and [p.1064]130), has near its end a transition point from complaint to praise; the confidence that the speaker possesses at the termination is not available to him at the start, but only comes into being through an act of God in response to his troubled prayer. The Markan Jesus does not quote Psalm 22’s ending but its beginning, and that agonized incipit corresponds perfectly to the situation of torment in which a crucified person finds himself [citations].

      “That situation, in the case of Jesus, is one of real forsakenness. Earlier in the passion narrative, Jesus was abandoned by his closest associates (14:50-52; cf. katalipon in 14:52), and in the crucifixion scene he was shown to be bereft of sympathy even from his fellow criminals (15:29-32). Now, climactically, he seems to have been abandoned (enkatelipes) by God as well. This last abandonment contradicts conventional notions of royalty; kings were supposed to have God as their helper, not their foe (cf. Matt 27:42-43; Josephus, Ant. 17.195). As throughout the rest of chapter 15, therefore, the narrative’s assertion of Jesus’ kingship occurs in the teeth of circumstances that seem to call it radically into question.

      “While some Christians have been troubled by this cry of dereliction, others have seen it as an indication of Jesus’ identification with humanity and thus as a source of comfort and empowerment. Jesus, at the nadir of his existence, experiences the same sense of divine abandonment that so often characterizes our lives; as Augustine puts it, khe “took on the speech of our infirmity” (Letter 140). A papyrus fragment from the third or fourth century, which was probably used in an amulet, even includes the cry in a series of names and attributes that express God’s grace, salvation, and loving fatherly care [citation]. Paradoxically, then, the cry of dereliction becomes good news, and this probably has to do with Mark’s Pauline soteriology: through identifying with human lostness, the Son of God points a way out of it [citations]. Jesus enters the darkness of the old age in order that humanity might live in the light of the new; he gives his life as a “ransom for many” [citations]. With his cry, and with the death that follows, Jesus has achieved the purpose of his mission: complete identification with humanity’s slave-like, accursed condition, and a corresponding form of decease, “even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7-8). The cry of dereliction, then, is in a strange way the Markan counterpart to the Johannine cry of triumph, “It is finished!” (John 19:30) — the goal has been achieved, humanity has been redeemed, and Jesus can therefore die.”

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