How it was more than a lament

Credit: ordinaryfool on Flickr

Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!”

In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”

In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

– Matthew’s account of the crucifixion

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On a hill outside the holy city, the religious might of Jerusalem conspired with the military might of Rome to kill the one who threatened them both. Convicting Jesus of blasphemy and treason, they strapped him to a tree and strung him up — a warning to any other who defied their stranglehold of power.

Those who passed by played along, voicing their approval of his execution — perhaps out of fear or perhaps because the current state of affairs between Jerusalem and Rome suited them just fine.

Even the insurrectionists strung up next to Jesus hurled their abuse. Maybe they resented him. At least they’d had the nerve to wield a sword in the face of oppression. Maybe they thought Jesus wasn’t worthy of dying next to them.

Utterly alone and abandoned, Jesus cried out:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

The opening words of Psalm 22.

But it wasn’t the only line quoted from that psalm on this day. Matthew’s account of the crucifixion is, in fact, a reenactment of Psalm 22 in its entirety. Notice the insult that prompted Jesus’ lament:

He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him.

Matthew attributed this line to the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders — the religious establishment. It too came straight out of Psalm 22.

I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”

Matthew appropriates the language of Psalm 22 to show us who’s playing what part in his story: the righteous sufferer and those who “hurl insults” at him. All of Psalm 22 was activated on Good Friday, in a manner of speaking.

I will fulfill my vows,” the psalmist resolved in the face of his own suffering.

Even when a pack of villains encircles him.

Even when they divide his clothes among them.

Even when the people stare and gloat.

The crucifixion of Jesus was a cruel reenactment of Psalm 22. It was, as one singer put it, “a strange way to do performance art.”

Understanding the interplay between Matthew’s crucifixion story and Psalm 22 brings something else to the surface. About two-thirds of the way into this psalm, the plot takes an unexpected turn: the psalmist predicts that from abandonment will come deliverance.

Not just his own deliverance, but rescue for all who are afflicted.

As a result of his hardship, the psalmist predicts, poverty will be no more.

All the ends of the earth will remember God and turn to him.

The rich and the poor will feast side by side — equals in God’s kingdom.

Those who cannot keep themselves alive” will be sustained.

All because of the sacrifice of one who chose not to keep himself alive.

On this Good Friday, try reading the original crucifixion story.

Read Psalm 22.

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