About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). (Matthew 27:46) NIV
And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). (Mark 15:34) NIV
We have come to the fourth saying of Jesus from the cross, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” or in the more modern translation “Why did you abandon me?” It is a saying that is very difficult for us to listen to because it is so full of pain. It was a loud “cry” (The Greek word makes clear that the phrase is an emotionally charged, intense cry (to the maximum limit.) It really means that Jesus screamed.
This is something that has troubled people for many years, because it certainly looks like at this point Jesus broke and he gave up on God. At the end, he collapsed, saying to God, “You’ve failed me.” This has troubled many people.
Ironically, it has even caused some skeptical critics of the gospels to rethink their position on the validity of the gospels. Their assumptions about the mythic nature of the gospels were challenged when they realized that if the writers of the gospels were making up an account about the death of the founder of their faith, and they were trying to promote that faith, you would never put such unheroic, disheartened, hopeless, despairing words in his mouth as his last words. You would never do this. In other words, it’s such a problematic statement that almost for certain Jesus actually said it. Therefore even from the most Biblical. critical point of view, this event and statement most certainly happened.
But what does the scream mean? I believe it is the deepest revelation of the passion of Jesus which involved deep suffering as he took upon himself our sin for the redemption of the world. It is a saying that appears to be as dark as the sky became that day when the sun could no longer bear to watch. However, if you listen carefully there is light to be found in that darkness, if we will only ask, “Why?” “Why was he being forsaken?” Do you know what the answer is? Jesus was really praying on the cross in his hour of greatest darkness and despair. And his prayer was from Psalm 22. In fact, it is the first line of the first verse, which is probably all that Jesus could squeeze from his lips as he hung, suffocating on the cross. However, the words bring to mind the whole of Psalm 22, which he certainly knew in its entirety. And it is the whole of that Psalm that he most certainly had in mind which describe perfectly the circumstances he was facing. The psalm is messianic and prophetic as it paints a horrific picture of torture Jesus was undergoing. It especially depicts the scorn of the wicked, the intimidation, the torture, the overwhelming fear, as well as the “gangs of evildoers” who “stared and gloated” over him as he hung on the cross. This most certainly was a psalm of lament, it was also a messianic in its fulfillment as it also looked through the dismal despair towards a redemptive future. And we need to recite and pray such Psalms in our own times of sorrow, especially when we can’t see what God is doing or how he might possibly be able to bring good out of our difficult circumstances.
Perhaps you have been abandoned by your father (or mother); been betrayed by friends, and experienced the scorn of others. Perhaps you were vulnerable and exposed and afraid and alone and had no one to turn to and when you cried for help and no one heard. Perhaps no one understood you, or you were left alone to suffer in your own time of need. Perhaps you were blamed for things you never did, and there was no one to explain, and no one to uphold you in the face of criticism. Perhaps you have been forsaken by the person you needed most.
And if so, perhaps you can begin to understand the agony of Jesus. This pain for him was new. He had never been separated from his father because he knew nothing of sin and it is sin and only sin that separates a person from God. He was tempted in every way as we are, the scriptures tell us, but he did not sin.
To the contrary, he had enjoyed perfect fellowship with God from before time. “The Father and I are one” he told his followers. “I don’t say anything or do anything apart from the Father,” he said.
On more than one occasion the heavens were opened over him and God spoke for all the world to hear, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:17). But now there was silence. God was withholding his voice and his presence. The heavens were firmly shut and darkness covered the face of the earth. Jesus was no longer the object of God’s pleasure, but of his wrath. Jesus had become sin for us (the embodiment of what God hates) for our sake, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
“Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.…” (Is. 53:4-6)
Therefore when Jesus begins with this scream of despair, his heart could still hope, and “it was for the hope set before him that he endured the cross despising the shame.” (Heb. 12:2).
So he was forsaken so that he might provide, “…by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world” (BCP p.334). Therefore we need to remember that when Jesus, cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he was holding on to God’s word, and to the hope of a redemptive future that included you and me. And even though he was suffering in our place and experiencing God’s wrath upon himself for the sin of the world, it was for all for us. That is why he kept holding on. It was for you and me … We are his passion. We are what he died for.
So even though the Psalmist relates to the worshipper’s hopeless situation he does not leave the worshipper there, but points the worshipper in the direction of faith and hope that ultimately ends in praise. “For all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord and all families of the nations shall worship before you” (Ps.22:27).
That is why we are here today. We were “…created to the praise of the glory of God’s grace” (Eph. 1:6). “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight.”(Eph. 1:7-8). So that we “…being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:18) Jesus was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world unto himself. “Love so amazing so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” Amen.
Notes from various Commentaries:
He was bearing the sins of the whole world; the Lord had laid on him the iniquity of us all; there was no one to comfort him in his heaviness; and the light of God’s countenance was for the time withdrawn from him. He was “left” that he might bear man’s sins in their full and crushing weight, and by bearing, save. (Pulpit Commentary)
“Amid the faintness, or the confusion of mind, felt at the approach of death, he experiences his abandonment by God; and yet his soul rests firmly on, and his will is fully subject to God, while he is thus tasting death for every man through God’s grace …. He held firmly to God and retained the Divinity of his life, at the time when in his unity with mankind, and in his human feeling, the feeling of abandonment by God amazed him” (Lange).
 St. Mark here uses the Aramaic form St. Matthew refers to the original Hebrew.
— The Rev. Stephen Becker