Famous last words

commit1On the Cross, Jesus dies. But how does he die? The Psalms he read throughout his life are in his head, informing his interpretation of his own suffering, shaping his experience, ‘opening a new and living way through his flesh’ (Heb 10.19-20). That new and living way is here, on the Cross. Christ opens it. His experience of suffering is that way ‘open’ to us – hence our call to participate in its sufferings (pace Moltmann who insists Christ died alone and that our crosses are not a participation in his). We’ve explored Ps 22 (My God, My God, why?), Ps 42, and now Ps 31. From Ps 31.5 Jesus lifts “Into your hand I commit my spirit.” Verse 14 (“I trust in your, Lord, I say ‘You are my God’) is interesting in light of some (including Cyril of Alexandria) who suppose Christ’s use of “My God” instead of “My Father” indicated a loss in him of a sense of the latter and a reduction of his faith to the former, i.e., God had become Christ’s “God” and not his “Father.” But this is nonsense. Even in the Psalms “God” articulates faith and trust. It’s not what one calls God because one is without the belief that God is also Father (cf. Jn 20.17, “I ascend to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”).

I present Ps 31 here in its entirety because from it Christ takes his last words (“Into your hands I commit my spirit,” v. 5). We know this psalm, along with Ps 22 and Ps 42, are where Christ went in his darkest hour to define himself. The contexts explain why Christ came here to die – and there is nothing of the despairing modern pathology that understands the Cross as divine withdrawal or abandonment.

Psalm 31 (NRSV)

1 In you, O LORD, I seek refuge;
do not let me ever be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me.
2 Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me.
3 You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
4 take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
5 Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.
6 You hate those who pay regard to worthless idols,
but I trust in the LORD.
7 I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love,
because you have seen my affliction;
you have taken heed of my adversities,
8 and have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy;
you have set my feet in a broad place.
9 Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief,
my soul and body also.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
and my bones waste away.
11 I am the scorn of all my adversaries,
a horror to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances;
those who see me in the street flee from me.
12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.
13 For I hear the whispering of many—
terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life.
14 But I trust in you, O LORD;
I say, “You are my God.”
15 My times are in your hand;
deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16 Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love.
17 Do not let me be put to shame, O LORD,
for I call on you;
let the wicked be put to shame;
let them go dumbfounded to Sheol.
18 Let the lying lips be stilled
that speak insolently against the righteous
with pride and contempt.
19 O how abundant is your goodness
that you have laid up for those who fear you,
and accomplished for those who take refuge in you,
in the sight of everyone!
20 In the shelter of your presence you hide them
from human plots;
you hold them safe under your shelter
from contentious tongues.
21 Blessed be the LORD,
for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me
when I was beset as a city under siege.
22 I had said in my alarm,
“I am driven far from your sight.”
But you heard my supplications
when I cried out to you for help.
23 Love the LORD, all you his saints.
The LORD preserves the faithful,
but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.
24 Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
all you who wait for the LORD.

3 comments on “Famous last words

  1. Tom, I love to imagine that the cry from Ps. 31 in Luke was his honest report of words heard by witnessing bystanders at the cross who desired to complete Mark’s typically sparse version, especially after Mark had been circulating in a kind of “authorized version” for 10 years or so and raising the kinds of honest questions among believers which you have remarked on more than once here.

    Mark had, after all, reported that a kind of inchoate (unarticulated) cry issued from the Master’s lips the moment he expired – perhaps that is all his sources heard of it. But it is not so unimportant that Mark fails to mention it, and places it some time after (not long after) the famous verbalization of Ps 22.

    I am an exponent of the theory that Jesus was “praying the psalms” in this crucial hour (and this practice is well-attested as an exercise among devout Jews and Christians during those centuries).

    So how many minutes do we think it might have taken Jesus to recite the verses from Ps22.1 to 31.5? And are you willing to entertain with me the possibility that we might have in that interesting stream of a thousand words or so the actual last thoughts which were passing through the savior’s thoughts on Earth?

    What a thrilling boon that would be for contemplative matter during Good Friday!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tom says:

      Totally agree John. I also tripped over Heb. 5.7 this week:

      “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”

      “During the days of his life” suggests a kind of repetitive life of fervent prayer to God – through his life. But it’s strange to think of him spending his entire life petitioning God to save him from death.
      It’s more likely that the author simply means ‘When he was on earth.” V. 8 appears to link this to the Passion anyhow.

      So the curious thing is – he cries to God who can save him from death. Apparently the qualification defines the object of his petition – that he be saved from death. And the text says “he was heard.” He was heard? How so? He died. He wasn’t saved from dying.

      So then we look for an explanation. (1) This refers to his prayers in the Garden, when he sweat drops of blood, was under great stress, approached death. God there saved him from dying prematurely. It’s an odd thing to mention in Heb 5 don’t you think? But maybe that’s what it is. (2) He does die, and his petition to be ‘saved from death’ is heard – and so he was raised from the dead – resurrection thus is his rescue from death (though not from dying). I suppose that’s possible. (3) Jesus is asking God to save him from succumbing to the deconstructing power of death as an existential force, i.e., to save him from falling into the sinful despair of death, i.e., to not given into death’s false narrative, to be defined by it. It’s a more philosophical reading – but not out of touch with the concern of Hebrews regarding death (ch 2 – Christ incarnations to save us “from our fear of death,” and John’s account (upper room discourse in which Jesus tells the disciples that ‘they will desert him but he will not be alone, for ‘my father will be with me’ on the Cross – so that ‘how God would be with him in his death will be how God will be with them in their deaths’) – so that Heb. 5.7 refers to the entire passion experience – Garden and Cross – where Christ cries to God for grace to endure (another Hebrews concern), to die well, to die without falling into the despair of death.

      I’m OK with any of the above readings of v. 7, though for obvious reasons I like (3) best.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Tom, I like the paradox you find in Heb. 5:7 – that Jesus was both heard and answered (and yet died!). And I agree that this paradox opens the door to reflections (such as your point (3), above).

        Because Heb. 5:7 is so closely attached to the concept of Jesus as the new high priest, I couldn’t help noticing the effect this teaching has on the paradox.

        If Jesus is high priest, it is less likely his prayers would be for his own salvation – a high priest asks for salvation not for himself but for the people. So if the prayers of Jesus, as high priest, are in fact “heard and answered” in terms of the salvation of God, this divine answer need not strictly entail his own salvation, but more likely a salvation of the whole people of God. And the Godly answer points beyond the Resurrection to the bestowal of the new Spirit at Pentecost.

        Also, if the high priest sheds any tears, they cannot be for himself, but for his flock. What pastor ever cries real tears for himself? Even the tears in the garden are indicators, I think, of the care of Jesus for the people, for the destiny of the Jews and in particular of his friends and apostles. If there is agony, it is more likely from the fear that his own resolve to suffer on that particular Passover might not coincide with God’s will for his beloved apostles (ie., the worry that the twelve might not be ready for the crisis and for “the deconstructing power” of his own physical death).

        And another thing; it is the prerogative of the high priest to enter into the holy of holies, the presence of God. It makes no sense that he receives this designation from God as a result of doubting or despairing of his connection with his Father.

        Don’t you agree that in this last sense the concept of the high priesthood of Jesus might contribute to the strength of arguments against those who believe that the faith of Jesus could be shaken or even for a moment destroyed by thoughts of being forsaken by God or by fears of bodily death?

        Liked by 1 person

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