Death

Scripture Readings: Mark 15:25-34, Luke 23:32-46

Lent is longing for Easter, but the way to Easter leads through Good Friday. One of my children once said that Good Friday ought to be called "Bad Friday," and probably that’s how most of us think of it. For Good Friday is about death, and death is bad.

Yet, death is the climax of the gospel story, and our lives all lead to death. So, a faith that can’t face death isn’t much of a faith. Facing death in and with the New Testament means reading the stories of Good Friday in the gospels.

The story in the gospel of Mark is probably the basis for the accounts in the gospels of Matthew and Luke and may even be known to the author of the gospel of John. In the gospel of Mark the Romans crucify Jesus for claiming to be "The King of the Jews." His crime is violating the order in Jerusalem enforced by Roman power. As Jesus hangs on the cross by the side of the road just outside the gate of the city, those passing by deride and mock him. In the gospel of Mark the only words that Jesus speaks on the cross are the first verse of Psalm 22, and he speaks them in Aramaic, the spoken language of his people in Galilee. Yet, the crowd in Jerusalem for Passover doesn’t seem to understand what he has said. Then Jesus gives "a loud cry" and dies. The account in Matthew 27:38-50 is very similar, except that Jesus speaks the first verse of Psalm 22 in Hebrew.

In the gospel of Luke, however, we find significant changes in the story. Some ancient versions of this gospel, but not all, have Jesus saying, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." (Lk. 23:34) But all the ancient manuscripts relate that one of the criminals crucified with Jesus defends Jesus’ innocence and asks to be remembered by Jesus when he comes into his kingdom. In Luke 23:43 Jesus replies to this dying man, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

The Greek word translated into English as "paradise" literally means "a shaded garden." More importantly, the word is used in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures read by first century Jews and Christians, for the Garden of Eden. In the first century Jews also used this Greek word for the place where they believed righteous souls went after death. Among themselves, Jews were divided as to whether the souls of the righteous remained in paradise forever, or were resurrected as part of the final day of the LORD ending history.

Thus Luke 23:43 is a significant addition to the crucifixion story. The reference to paradise offers hope for life after death, and Christians have come to understand this either as everlasting life in heaven, or as resurrected life in a newly created cosmos after God ends the present world.

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus speaks once more before he dies. "Crying with a loud voice," he says, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." (Lk. 23:46) Unlike the gospels of Mark and Matthew, the dying Jesus does not utter the first verse of Psalm 22. Instead, his last words in the gospel of Luke are from Psalm 31:5, which in the New Revised English Version reads: "Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God." Psalm 31, like Psalm 22, offers a prayer for deliverance, and both psalms express longing and despair. In Psalm 31 the author prays: "Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away." (vs. 9-10)

As in Psalm 22, the author of Psalm 31 is under attack: "I am the scorn of all my adversaries, exceedingly cut off from my neighbors . . . I hear the whispering of many – terror all around! – as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life." (vs. 11, 13) But the psalmist also proclaims his faith: "I trust in you, O LORD; I say, ‘You are my God.’" (v. 14) "Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love…O how abundant is your goodness that you have laid up for those who fear you, and accomplished for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of everyone!" (vs. 16, 19) And the author of Psalm 31 testifies to his people: "Love the LORD, all you his saints . . . [for the] LORD preserves the faithful." (v. 23)

In the gospel of John the crucified Jesus does not refer either to Psalm 22 or Psalm 31. Instead, from the cross he says to his mother, "Woman, here is your son," referring to the disciple that in the fourth gospel is only identified as "the disciple loved by Jesus." And Jesus says to this disciple, "Here is your mother." (Jn. 19:26-27) This is not merely a sweet, domestic touch to the story, but suggests that Mary, the mother of Jesus, and this disciple, who is very special to Jesus, will have a leading place in the ministry of the church.

Then the gospel of John asserts that, "in order to fulfill the scripture," Jesus says, "I am thirsty." After Jesus is given sour wine on a sponge, he states, "It is finished." And he dies. The gospel author claims this fulfills scripture, because Psalm 69 contains the statement, "for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink." (v. 21) Like Psalms 22 and 31, Psalm 69 prays for deliverance. "Save me, O God," it begins, "for the waters have come up to my neck” and "I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God." (vs. 1-3)

"It is for your sake," the psalmist tells God, "that I have borne reproach, that shame has covered my face. I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children. It is zeal for your house," the psalmist says to God, "that has consumed me; [and] the insults of those who insult you [meaning the LORD] have fallen on me." (vs. 7-9) Although he has become a scapegoat for the anger his tormentors have for God, nonetheless the psalmist proclaims his faith. "But as for me, my prayer is to you, O LORD. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me” and "I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify [the LORD] with thanksgiving." (vs. 13, 30)

All four New Testament gospels, despite their differences, present the crucified Jesus reciting from the Psalms, the Jewish literary tradition of longing for hope in the face of personal distress and national disaster. As Jesus dies on the cross in these gospel stories, we are directed to the Psalms not only to understand his death but also our own. Our faith is that all who turn to the Bible will find comfort in words such as these, at the end of Psalm 31: "Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD." (v. 24)

March 30, 2003

 Bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016