Monday, October 31, 2022

Jesus and His Bible, Part 21

Agony and Trust

The gospel of Mark propels Jesus through his trial before the religious leaders to his appearance before Pilate, the release of Barabbas, the sentence of crucifixion, and his torture by the Roman soldiers. Then Jesus carried his cross as far as he could until the soldiers pressed Simon of Cyrene into service to carry it the rest of the way. 

As Jesus hung above them on the cross, with the inscription THE KING OF THE JEWS over his head, the soldiers below divided up his garments. Then Mark quotes the Jewish Testament for only the second time as narrator: “they ‘divided up his garments among themselves, casting lots for them’” (Psalm 22:19), and then “those passing by were…’wagging their heads’ (Psalm 22:8). These quotations are irresistible to the narrator as deriving from from Psalm 22 which Jesus quoted from the cross.

Years ago, I heard Brendan Manning preach on this moment in Jesus’s dying, and I think what he said set me off on this whole study of the scriptures Jesus quoted and how knowing their context lights up aspects of Jesus’s interactions that would otherwise remain obscure.  

What I took from what Brendan said is this: Many people think when they read what Jesus said at the moment of his dying, that God abandoned him. This is understandable, given that Jesus “cried out with a loud voice, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:34). From this understanding has arisen the notion that when Jesus took on himself the sins of the world, God could no longer look on him or be in his presence. In this understanding, God turned his back on Jesus because of our sin which he took on as his own. 

What Brendan said that changed everything for me was that when Jesus quoted Psalm 22, he brought into the event the entire psalm. Jesus made the psalm about him, and the significance is enormous. Specifically, said Brendan, the shift of the latter half of the psalm into an assertion of trust and confidence in God was implicit from the quotation, making it clear that while Jesus truly suffered as any human being would, in the midst of agony he could still affirm his confidence in God.  It came clear to me that there was no more separation between Jesus and his Father than there is between any suffering human and God. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me”—another statement of faith in another Davidic psalm.

The editors of The Jewish Study Bible  discuss the Davidic authorship of the Psalms ascribed to him, noting: “An ancient and pervasive tradition, going back to the Bible itself, attributes the authorship of Psalms to David” (1281), and that this tradition has continued into modern times for both Jews and Christians. Certainly this would have been the tradition received by Jesus, and his quoting a David psalm is deliberate as well as appropriate to his suffering. (Modern scholars are skeptical that David wrote all the psalms attributed to him; this does not seem very relevant to the context in which Jesus grew up and learned the scriptures.)

In his anguish, Jesus cried out with this Davidic psalm to express his brokenness and isolation. However, by quoting this psalm, he also identified himself with David, an anointed one who was targeted for assassination by King Saul. a king who also faced abandonment by his people on occasion, It is possible that in this quotation, Jesus asserted again his vocation as the anointed one of God and the son of David, in fact the true King of the Jews.

The psalm begins with the psalmist’s lament that he feels God to be far away from him in his time of dire need.  “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from my deliverance and from the words of my groaning” (Psalm 22:1). And he continues in that sorrow and despair for nearly half the psalm until a shift occurs in verse 22.  Robert Alter translates that verse this way, “Rescue me from the lion’s mouth. And from the horns of the ram You answered me” (The Hebrew Bible: The Writings, 68).  Alter’s use of past tense goes against the majority of translators, who make it parallel to the first half of the verse: Rescue me…Answer me.  However, Alter justifies his use of the past tense as a literal translation of the received text, and writes “perhaps the verb in the past tense is intended as a compact turning point: God has indeed answered the speaker’s prayer” (69, n.).  

Following that shift, the psalm becomes one of praise, the speaker calling all people to praise the Lord.  God “has not spurned nor has despised the affliction of the lowly, and has not hidden His face from him; when he cried out to Him, He heard” (Psalm 22:25, tr. Alter, Writings 69).  To see this affirmation implicit in the first cry of agony means that God did not abandon Jesus at his lowest point. When Jesus cried out, God heard him. And we, in our small flawed selves, can with confidence know that God does not and will not abandon us either, no matter how alone or agonized  we feel.

Additionally, if we read to the end of Psalm 22, we see again the vision of a humanity reconciled to God. “And all the families of the nations will worship before thee; for the Kingdom is the Lord’s, and he rules over the nations.” Even the dead will bow before him, which, writes Alter, “is unusual because a reiterated theme in Psalms is that the dead, mute forever, cannot praise God” (n., 69)  But for a Christian reading this through the lens that Jesus spoke truth about the resurrection of the dead, it is the most natural and hopeful vision possible.

As a literary scholar, I have frequently looked at the context of allusions and quotations writers incorporate for enlightenment and expansion of the text before me. This is why Brendan Manning’s exposition stopped me in my complacent assumption that Jesus’s quotations of his Bible say only what they appear to say. It seems completely reasonable to me now to assume instead that they said far more to his scripturally alert audience than they appear to say, and these reverberations account in part for the hostility with which religious leaders met Jesus. 

In this specific instance, the gulf between thinking that God abandoned Jesus because of sin and thinking that Jesus invoked the trusting and even confident ending of Psalm 22 is enormous. God can look on sinful persons, God loves sinful persons, God hears sinful persons when they cry out their distress, and God will save them. We have only to look at the flawed humans in Jesus’s Bible to see this is true.

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