Truly this man was God’s Son.” The centurion and those with him make this realization once their deed is done—after Jesus takes his last breath, and the earth trembles and graves open and risen saints emerge. “Truly this man was God’s Son.”
The only words Jesus himself speaks from the time of his trial before Pilate to his last breath is that plaintive cry: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachtani.” “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” These final statements from Matthew’s crucifixion scene stand in stark juxtaposition to one another. “Truly this was God’s Son” “Why have you forsaken me?”
Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ passion surprises us by Jesus’ lack of words. Jesus remains nearly silent while the others in this drama cannot stop taunting him, from the soldiers to the religious leaders to even the crooks strung up beside him. All make statements about how utterly ridiculous and pitiful Jesus is. How godforsaken he must be. It’s “herd mentality,” of course. We know it all too well. The kid picked on at the playground because of his size or her clothes or the color of his skin or the lack of athletic ability or the country she comes from. And not just kids; we’ve seen it play out around us in countless other arenas of life when someone gets bullied or seen to be worth so much less than others.
The godforsaken ones.
Images from Syria flooded our screens this past week. On Tuesday a chemical attack took place on Khan Sheikhoun in the rebel-held Idlib Province. Casualties number over 80 at this point, and many others impacted. Many of these are innocent ones who have been caught in the crossfire, leading to the current worldwide refugee crisis. Images like these remain horrifically hard to view—it’s easier to change the channel to see what’s cooking on the Food Network or to click a link and read about the latest Hollywood gossip. Just like it’s easy to skip over the brutal reality of Holy Week and focus on Easter. When we experience the godforsaken, we tend to avert our eyes and our hearts. We look away and try to get on with our lives.
In reflecting on Matthew’s Passion narrative, the Rev. Dr. Veronice Miles asks a profound question: “What if [Jesus’] prolonged silence and painful cry from the cross is really intended to call us towards a life of vocation and embolden us to stand in solidarity with those who suffer, so that anguished cries might cease? Maybe Jesus’ cry is not his alone, but a timeless cry on behalf of millions of suffering people who have felt and will feel forsaken by God and humanity, lest someone answer their call. Perhaps his anguished cry is intended to touch us at the core of our being so that we, his present-day disciples, may remember his teachings and live therein.”
“My God, my God, what have you forsaken me?” “Truly this was God’s Son.”
If Jesus the godforsaken one also is truly God’s Son, what does that say about God’s relationship to the godforsaken? While we could spend a lifetime trying to wrap our minds around the Incarnate Son of God—True God from True God—being also forsaken by God at the same time (and if you are inclined to tackle this immense theological question, I suggest you read Jürgen Moltmann’s significant work The Crucified God), our time this morning is best spent reflecting on God’s deep love for the ones our world rejects. While on that cross the Son of God experienced all the worst that our world can hurl at the destitute and downtrodden. The forgotten and rejected. The despised and ignored. God from God, Light from Light experienced the depth of the human condition. Christ became all those things himself on that hillside long ago.
And throughout his life and teachings Jesus showed us again and again how to respond. He spoke to the woman at the well and offered her living water. He healed blind Bartimaeus. He touched the leper. He gave food to the hungry. He forgave the woman caught in adultery. He drove the moneychangers out of the temple. He lifted up the lowly. He brought Lazarus back to life. Jesus clearly exhibited how we are to respond to the ones that our world casts off; we are to show love and compassion.
“Truly this man was God’s Son.”
Jesus knows well the depths of human suffering. His life, ministry, and passion centered on the desire to alleviate that suffering, to offer hope and life, to bring redemption and renewal. Jesus experienced all of this for us and for the whole world, and he invites us to not gloss over the pain or ignore the cross, but to see it fully in all its complexity and unbelievable sadness. When we remember all that happened, we can share God’s unending love with the desolate people of this world. These ones that are indeed forsaken but not by God’ they are forsaken by our world and the malevolent ones of our day.
So look on that cross. See what Christ endured. Know that the Son of God understands the suffering of our world; he understands your suffering too. May we on this day live as his disciples, embodying his teachings and responding to the cries of the godforsaken with his mercy and love. Let us hear his final cry from that cross and stand in solidarity with the ones in our world who suffer, sharing the compassion of Christ with them no matter the cost. Amen.