Most of us are aware that there are four separate Gospels recorded in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They were all written at least 40 years after Jesus was crucified. The stories vary, as you might well expect, given the amount of time that had elapsed, and the fact that any traumatic event is going to be remembered by different people quite differently.If you think about it, the decision that was reached to include four gospels rather than one definitive Gospel expresses an appreciation for the mystery of the one who is the focus of the Gospels.
Regarding the death of Jesus, the four Gospels agree on: that he died on a cross at placed called Golgotha; that he hung between two other men, and that a sign was placed above his head that read, â€œKing of the Jews.â€ The charge was treason against the Roman empire and the method of execution was the one favored by the Romans for this crime. People divided his clothes while he hung there on the cross. He was offered sour wine to drink, and he died shortly before sundown and the start of the Sabbath. And Peter wasnâ€™t present, having denied him three times the night before.
What was going through Jesus’ head while he hung there on the cross, we can only wonder and imagine, which seems to be what the Gospel writers did when they described Jesus speaking as he died. It is here that the four Gospel writers accounts varies greatly. What we have in these accounts is the church, lead by the holy spirit, using their imaginations based upon what they knew about Jesus and the kind of person he was.
And so John, writing the most years away from the actual events, puts three different sayings on Jesus’ lips, each with something to say for them: First, he has Jesus looking out for his mother in his death, which is a sweet and touching thought, that here, with his dying breaths, Jesus is providing for his poor mother’s care: “Woman, here is your son. Here is your mother.”
John goes on to have Jesus say, “I thirst.” He probably would have been thirsty, but John seems more concerned about fulfilling prophecy, strengthening the sense that what was happening was all foreordained.
And finally, the triumphant, “It is finished!” announcing his death and the completion of the work accomplished here.
Luke, writing somewhat earlier than John, also depicts three sayings coming out of the mouth of Jesus, all different from the ones that John describes. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they did.” Extraordinary, powerful words, perhaps my personal favorite — words that seem to speak from the very heart of Jesus’ message. Luke is the only Gospel writer than includes the story Jesus told of the prodigal son returning to his father, who, in extraordinary graciousness, forgives the son his cruelties. Likewise, Jesus declares forgiveness for those who have killed him.
It is Luke that has a conversation take place between the two thieves and Jesus, and in doing so makes wonderful points. The two thieves, approaching the moment of their death — one chooses to reject the grace of God, the other throws himself onto the mercy of God, thereby driving home the choice each of us must make for or against the grace of God. To the thief who seeks mercy, Jesus gives tender reassurance: “This day you will be with me in paradise.”
Luke’s final words he has Jesus speak are, “Father, into they hands I commend my spirit”; poignantly beautiful, Jesus simultaneously in total submission to God, and triumphant.
As I said, these saying are all inspired by the Holy Spirit and the memory of the sort of person those who had known him experienced him to be, and as such, they are all true. But if you were to ask me if I thought the words recorded by John and Luke were true in the sense of being historical — that on that horrible afternoon long, long ago these words were actually spoken by the lips and the tongue of Jesus, well I would have to say, no, I don’t think so.
Part of why I think this is simply the nature of crucifixion. The Romans used this form to execution precisely because it was so severe, so incredibly painful.
They intended the agony of these deaths to serve as a warning to anybody else who might get it into their head to rebel against the emperor’s authority.
It was suffocation that would usually take a person’s life in crucifixion. They died slowly, a instinctive panic arising from the fact that they weren’t getting enough oxygen into their lungs. It was, quite simply, absolutely horrible, and if truth be told, in such a situation as this, edifying words don’t get spoken.
Which is why Mark’s version of what Jesus said on the cross seems the most plausible of all. Mark, writing down his Gospel first, describes Jesus saying only one thing, and not particularly original at that: Jesus quotes a verse of scripture
that he would have learned early in his childhood, and repeated throughout his life as part of his prayer life, a verse from the very beginning of the 22nd psalm:
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Matthew writing several years later than Mark, figured he shouldn’t mess with Mark’s version. He too, records Jesus crying out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” This and nothing more. Nothing edifying, just raw emotion: the feeling of being absolutely abandoned by God.
The very same man who had taught that God was abba, daddy, and said what daddy, if his son asked for a fish to eat, would ever give him a stone? At this moment, however, a rock seems to be precisely what the son is getting.
So what are we to make of these words? Only this: that this, too, is a part of the life of faith. There are moments that come to each of us when utter abandonment is what we feel, whether it be brought on by excruciating physical pain or by heartbreaking grief, or by severe depression brought on my brain chemistry, or an overwhelming sense of guilt or fear.
And so there is comfort in the simple fact that even Jesus experienced this, so that when we experience the same sort of thing, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have somehow lost our way — that we’re being punished — that this is happening to us because of something we did, or because there is something terribly wrong with us.
No, it happened to Jesus before us, and it happened to him precisely at the moment he was following the path God had called him to walk.
We tend to think of the Bible as being this edifying book that expresses assurance and confidence on every page, but that is not so. Within the Bible the whole range of human emotion is expressed as part of the life of faith.
And it is striking that at the moment of his death, Jesus falls back on a verse of scripture he learned in Sunday School, a verse of scripture that expresses the very darkest side of life.
So this too is part of the journey. And the one hopeful thing that can be said, is that it is not the end of the journey, even though that is precisely what it feels like.
I mentioned last night that I was struck by certain words Luke alone has Jesus say, at the end of the Last Supper:
“Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”Our reaction to this might be, well, Simon Peter’s faith did fail, didn’t it?
Maybe there is subtle but big difference between stumbling and failing in the faith walk. The spiritual agony that Peter went through after he abandoned Jesus; well I do not think it is a stretch to say that it mirrored the same darkness that Jesus experienced upon the cross. At some point, I’m sure, that when Peter was sitting in his stinking pool of self hatred and self-condemnation, knowing that out there on Golgotha, Jesus was hanging on a cross, if Peter had been given a choice, he would have taken physical pain of the cross over the utter abandonment he was feeling.
But Jesus was with him in that experience of his abandonment. And Peter stumbled, but his faith didn’t fail.
On Easter Sunday it would rise again. And having know, with Jesus, the experience of absolute abandonment, he was indeed in a better position to encourage those who would similarly path through the dark valley.