Why Jesus Cried Out
Why did Jesus cry, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" right before he died on the cross?
Many scholars will explain that these words --"Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matt 27:46 NRSV) -- refer to Psalm 22, which start with these very same words. To the Christian, this is rather reassuring, since the psalm ends with victory: "All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD…. For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations" (22:27, 28). The interpretation is that Jesus was reminding people that this tragedy of crucifixion ends in triumph. The psalm seems to detail everything Jesus encounters. It's fun to read Psalm 22 with this in mind.
Scholar R. T. France begs to differ. In his commentary, Matthew, he writes, "This is no dispassionate theological statement, but an agonized expression of a real sense of alienation" and that "it is illegitimate to interpret Jesus' words as referring to the part of the psalm which he did not echo" (404).
But in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus had completely yielded everything up to God: "My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done" (Matt 26:42). He trusted in God completely.
Why in the world, then, would Jesus think that God would abandon him on the cross? He wouldn't:
- God would not abandon Jesus – nor any of us; that is not God's nature. God does not forsake His children.
- Jesus knew God's nature. He knew God was with him.
- Jesus had already given up any fear of death during his struggle in the garden.
But, if we agree with France not to look at the part of the psalm that Jesus didn't quote, what should we look at instead?
One of our previous BibleWise guests, Rocco Errico, provides another option in his Aramaic Light on the Gospel of Matthew – an option that fits with what we know about Jesus and Jesus' absolute trust in God. Errico states that Lamsa's Aramaic translation reads, "My God, my God, for this was I spared! (or This was my destiny.)" (346). That's a totally different viewpoint. Jesus knew that he had to go through the cross experience to get to the resurrection to show that death cannot kill a man – that life is eternal.
Errico explains that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, and in that language, what other translations, such as the King James Version, take as a question could actually read as a declaration: "'el, 'el l'mana shwaqthani: O God! O God! To what [a purpose] You have kept me!' Jesus cried out with a deep knowingness of his reason for having lived and for dying. His cry was a victorious one. God did not abandon him" (346).
Errico continues to explain that throughout his ministry, Jesus "taught that God was a loving Father who was aware even when a sparrow falls. He always felt God was with him" and knew that God would be with him, even if his disciples left him (348). Jesus would not have "contradicted all his teaching and shattered the truth and hope of his gospel followers" (348).
Errico reminds us that instead of asking God to avenge his persecutors, Jesus asks his Father to forgive them, and he prays, "'O, my Father, into they hands I commit my spirit.' Therefore, in his suffering, Jesus was conscious that God was with him and that he was not deserted…. He felt the assurance of the ultimate victory" (350).
So this Easter season, let's have the trust that Jesus had. No matter what comes across our path, God does not forsake us. God loves us and is with us – now, forever, and always.
Errico, Rocco A., and George M. Lamsa. Aramaic Light on the Gospel of Matthew. Aramaic New Testament Series. Smyma, GA: Noohra Foundation, 2005.
France, R. T. Matthew. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: Inter- Varsity P, 1985.