When God is Silent
Scripture Readings: Psalm 22, Mark 14:32-41
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" As familiar as these words may be for Christians, they are nonetheless shocking. In the gospel of Mark this statement in Aramaic is spoken by Jesus just before he dies on the cross (Mk. 15:34), and in the gospel of Matthew Jesus utters these last words in Hebrew (Mt. 27:46): "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" Which is generally translated as, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
This final despairing scene is foreshadowed in these gospels and also in the gospel of Luke by the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mk. 14:32-42, Mt. 26:36-46, Lk. 22:39-46). While his leading disciples fall asleep, Jesus prays that "the hour might pass from him." Mark 14:36 has Jesus saying, "Abba, Father, for you all things are possible: remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want." And Luke 22:14 adds, "in his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground."
None of the gospels reports an answer from God, either to the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane or to his cry of distress on the cross. In these gospels, as Jesus goes to his death, God is silent. And remarkably, although at times the gospels report the voice of God or the presence of angels speaking for God, throughout the gospels God is usually silent.
In the Bible, however, God's silence does not begin with the account of Jesus. The silence of God dominates the Hebrew scriptures, which are "the Bible" for the first Christians. Of course, God speaks to Adam, to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, and to the Prophets. But then in the story, God falls silent. In the Writings of the Hebrew scriptures (sometimes called the Wisdom Literature) there is much talk about God, but the God who spoke openly in the past is silent. To know God's will, the chosen people are left on their own to interpret the Torah and the Prophets, which is what the Writings do.
The Writings of Jewish scripture are the source for the cry of the crucified Jesus in the gospels of Mark and Matthew. Psalm 22 begins with the words, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" And the Psalm continues: "You are far from my plea and the cry of my distress. O my God, I call by day and you give no reply; I call by night and I find no peace." (Ps. 22 1-2)
Does God answer this cry for help? Not in Psalm 22, which is why the Psalm was used by the author of the gospel of Mark in writing the Passion story of Jesus. Like Psalm 22, the account of the crucifixion of Jesus is a way of coming to terms with Godís almost unbearable silence.
The parallels between the gospel stories and Psalm 22 are striking. In the Passion story, Jesus is nailed to a cross. In Psalm 22 the author says his hands and feet have been damaged. As Jesus hangs on the cross, he is mocked by those watching. Psalm 22:7 reads: "All who see me deride me. They curl their lips, they toss their heads. ĎHe trusted in the LORD," the people say, so "let God save himí." Those taunting Jesus in Mark 15:31 say: "He saved others; [but] he cannot save himself." Psalm 22:18 reads, "they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots." Mark 15:24 says of the Roman soldiers, who crucified Jesus, that they "divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take."
Whether you chose to understand these parallels as prophecy in the Psalm being fulfilled in the life of Jesus, or as Jewish scripture being used by the author of the gospel to communicate the meaning and purpose of Jesus' crucifixion, in either case God's silence is deafening.
Yet, in each case the story does not end with a despairing cry. In the Psalm, the cry is the beginning, and the person who cries out in distress then declares his faith in the God, who is silent. In the gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus does not clearly affirm his faith as he is being crucified, but Jews reading these gospel accounts know that reciting the first verse of a Psalm evokes the entire Psalm. So, to understand what these words have meant for Jews, we must hear not only the cry of despair in Psalm 22 but also the psalmist's affirmation of faith at the end of the psalm.
The author of Psalm 22 proclaims of the LORD: "In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame." (v. 4-5) More intimately, the psalmist says of God, "you took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my motherís breast." (v. 9) The Psalm concludes with the authorís pledge to praise God in the temple, to serve the LORD, and to teach this faith to his descendants. In the face of Godís silence the author of this Psalm embraces the tradition and teachings of his faithful ancestors. The answer in Psalm 22 to the silence of God is paradoxically to keep faith with God.
For most Christians Easter offers a more compelling answer than Psalm 22. But after two millennia of celebrating Easter, the silence of God continues to be deafening. Lent, which leads to "Good Friday," reminds us of this dark fact, but all we need to do is turn on the radio or television. We are inundated with the "bad news" of our time, and few of those who claim to speak for God (or to speak truthfully about God) leave us assured that they do.
We are now, as always, at the foot of the cross. The cry of the psalmist and of Jesus is now our cry, and the silence of God may lead us to despair. So, hear the words of Psalm 22, and heed the witness of the church. Embrace our silent God with faith, hope, and love.
23 March 2003
1 in Faith: A Christian Bible Study Ü Copyright © 2000 by Robert Traer