Matthew 21:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Matthew 27:11-54
Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
I don’t know about you, but I can’t get those words out of my head when I hear the Passion Gospel. Amid the tragedy of the excruciating death of God’s innocent servant, I can’t stop hearing that cry: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
The reason that line haunts me is because it begs the question, the central question Palm Sunday invites us to struggle with: Who is this man who’s calling out to God? Our readings today point us toward an answer, but they’re stops along a journey – a journey we know as the way of the cross.
Outside, in the day’s first Gospel proclamation, we hear the crowd hailing Jesus as the king. If we’d been in occupied Palestine 2,000 years ago, we would have seen this amazing man as the sign of our hope – hope for release from Roman captivity by God’s anointed king, which is what “messiah” means. We would have been cheering for him as he entered the holy city in triumph, riding on a donkey like one of Israel’s ancient kings, because we would have hoped he’d be the one to bring us freedom.
But now that we’ve taken our places here in the church, symbolically entering the holy city, things go south for this man we hoped was king. He challenges the authorities, both religious and civil, by starting a riot in the Temple, railing against its leaders whose taxes and sacrifices cost poor peasants money they don’t have. In the process, he strikes fear into the hearts of the political rulers, who see the crowd about to become an angry mob. As any smart oppressor knows, when the people get angry, you distract them with someone else to be angry about. So the religious and political leaders collude to turn the crowd against Jesus instead of against them. Soon, we’re shouting “Crucify!” rather than “Hosanna!” And the bloody drama unfolds, leading to that haunting line – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Why would Jesus say that? What’s he thinking about himself at that point? And what’s he thinking about the God to whom he cries out?
The reading from the prophet Isaiah gives us a clue about how Jesus might have understood himself and his role. This is one of four “servant songs” from Isaiah, in which the prophet describes different roles that God’s appointed servant plays in bringing salvation to the world. For Isaiah, the servant was Israel; but I think Jesus saw himself fulfilling that role, both in his day and for all time. In the first servant song, the servant is described as “a light to the nations,” the one who models God’s justice to all the world (42:6). In the second servant song, God says it’s not enough just to bring God’s servant, the people of Israel, back from their exile in Babylon; God says, “I will give [my servant] as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (49:6). The Old Testament reading this morning is the third servant song, sung in the voice of the servant himself. Although Israel failed to follow God’s desires, the servant remained steadfast and endured persecution for his faithfulness. In his own day, Jesus could look around and see the chief priests and the Pharisees fulfilling Isaiah’s words about unfaithful Israel – and he could see himself as the suffering servant, persecuted for threatening those leaders’ grip on religious power. This suffering servant, knows what’s coming, but he also trusts God’s presence in the outcome: “Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” (50:-8-9).
But before long, that confidence seems to give way to desolation. Of course it does. After interrogations, and beatings, and dragging the cross on his own broken back, of course the suffering servant’s confidence gives way to anguish. It’s the anguish of torturous pain, of course – but is it also the anguish of failure? The anguish of rejection by those the servant has come to serve? The anguish of offering love and having people spit in your face? Is it the anguish of abandonment?
In that awful moment, as Jesus hangs on the cross, a song comes into his head – a song from the Temple’s hymnal, what we call the Book of Psalms. We know this song as Psalm 22, and we’ll pray it when we gather here again on Good Friday evening. It’s a song of despair, or at least it starts off sounding that way. But like most good songs, there’s more to it than what you hear right off the bat. So, here’s the first line of that song Jesus starts to quote, Psalm 22. It goes like this: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (22:1 BCP).
Here’s the mysterious and wonderful thing about Psalm 22: It doesn’t stop with despair. The first half of its 31 verses give voice to the deepest suffering you can imagine.
O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer…. [A]s for me, I am a worm and no man, scorned by all and despised by the people…. Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help…. [T]hey pierce my hands and my feet; I can count all my bones…. They stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing. (22:2,6,11,16,17, BCP)
You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to see the connection. That song in Jesus’ broken heart is playing out all around him as he hangs on that cross.
But, as I said, Psalm 22 doesn’t stop there. Yes, this is a song of the servant’s suffering, but it’s also, just as much, a song of God’s deliverance. For as much as it laments, the song also remembers:
Our forefathers put their trust in you; they trusted, and you delivered them…. I will declare your Name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation, I will praise you…. All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall bow before him. For kingship belongs to the Lord; he rules over the nations. (22;4,21,26-27, BCP).
The Lord rules over the nations, says the song that Jesus gasps out from the cross. The Lord – not the frightened religious authorities; not the governor, Pilate; not even Caesar in all his imperial grandeur back in Rome. The Lord rules over the nations, Jesus’ song proclaims – even when the Lord hangs on a cross.
So, back to the question of the day: Who is this man who’s calling out to God?
This is where the mystery goes deep. This man hanging on the cross is not just the suffering servant fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy. This man hanging on the cross is not just a wise and holy teacher, renewing the Jewish tradition in his own day. This man hanging on the cross is not just the anointed king of Israel, the messiah for a people trapped in political oppression and religious stagnation. This man hanging on the cross is the one to whom the Roman army officer pledges his converted allegiance when he says, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Matthew 27:54).
And even that may not capture this deep mystery in its fullness. Because human language stumbles to express the nature and life of God, we’re immediately limited in what we say even when we proclaim Jesus to be God’s Son – because being someone’s child might imply more difference than the Trinity actually holds. After all, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are “one God … in Trinity of Persons and in Unity of Being” (BCP 380). So the fact that they are one takes us to the edge of the deepest mystery of them all: This man hanging on the cross is not just the anointed offspring of God. This man hanging on the cross is God. He is the kyrios, the “Lord,” which was a title claimed by Caesar himself. This man hanging on the cross is the true Lord whom Caesar can’t unseat, the “highly exalted” one, whose name “is above every name, so that at [his] name … every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” – not Caesar. (Philippians 2:9-11)
As we begin our journey though Holy Week, “may the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). May we walk alongside him each step of the way, as present to his pain as he is to ours. And all along that holy way, may we, too, sing Psalm 22 – and remember that the cry of desolation, the cry from the cross, is never God’s last word.