Today Christians around the world celebrate Good Friday, the day we remember Jesus' death on the cross. In church services across the world the passions narratives will be read, preached about and perhaps even reenacted. It is a time to reflect on the events of the crucifixion and what it means for those who are followers of Jesus and put their hope in the promise that someday God will triumph over all.
One part of the passion narrative that has sometimes caused difficulty for readers of the gospels is Jesus words "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" The words appear in Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46. Neither Luke nor John place these words on the lips of Jesus. In Luke Jesus dies with the words "into your hands I commit my spirit (23:46) and John has the simple words "it is finished" (19:30).
Over the years I have heard, on more than one occasion, someone suggest that when Jesus cried out "My God, My God why have you forsaken me?" that God had turned his back on Jesus. That the father had abandon the son. I have even seen passion plays where the figure of God is seen turning his back on Jesus as he dies. This of course leads to all sort of problems for our understanding of the trinity. How could the Godhead abandon one part of itself? I have heard some very "interesting" sermons based on the premise that God had abandon Jesus. But I don't think that is what is going on here. I don't think Mark and Matthew are suggesting that God abandon Jesus. I think they are saying something more theologically significant.
In order to understand this passage we need to keep in mind that the words of Jesus in these two gospels are taken from Psalm 22:1. This psalm was often read alongside the crucifixion narrative by early Christians since the description of the psalmist's suffering has many similarities as that of Jesus. With that in mind it is quite possible that what we have here is not the last words of Jesus on the cross, but the theological interpretation of Jesus' death as understood by both Mark and Matthew.
Since neither Luke nor John agree with Mark and Matthew about Jesus' last words it is quite possible that we don't know his exact words. But the use of Psalm 22 by Matthew and Mark is probably a way of explaining the story with theological significance. Psalm 22 begins with the same words asking why God has forsaken the psalmist and goes on to describe how everyone has turned against the author and how he is suffering and even dying. But the Psalm doesn't stop there. Beginning in 22:19 the focus of the psalm shifts away from the suffering of psalmist to the triumph of God over his enemies. The psalm declares how God will rescue those who suffer and how those who have been rescued will declare throughout the earth what God as done for them. A psalm that begins with a cry of anguish and despair ends on a note of hope and triumph.
If we understand the last words of Jesus in Mark and Matthew in the context of Psalm 22 we realize that Jesus is not wondering where God has gone but is rather declaring the coming triumph of God. Although things may look bleak now, ultimately God will triumph and that good news will be spread throughout the world. God did not abandon Jesus. More important on this Good Friday is not the idea of God abandoning Jesus but triumphing overall. That which begins in defeat and despair ends in hope and victory.