The Seven Last Words of Jesus: A Progressive Vision
When I recently told a colleague that I was writing a brief piece on the Seven Last
Words – or Seven Sayings – of Christ and having a Zoom service on Friday, he responded: “Isn’t that a bit old school, Bruce? Why bother with something that is obviously inaccurate and outmoded in terms of current theology?” He followed with, “Isn’t this all superfluous right now with the pandemic having closed our churches?” His response gave me pause, but I decided to go ahead with the project because these words still are meaningful in the Good Friday and Lenten rituals of many Christians, including members of mainstream and progressive congregations. Perhaps, they are more meaningful now as I will conduct a Seven Last Words service on Zoom from my study to congregants gathered in homes across Cape Cod and the globe. We need to find the suffering of Jesus as both challenge and balm to our souls as we deal with the despair, depression, and boredom – and dare we say, spiritual possibilities – of this time of pandemic.
The Seven Last Words of Christ are a bit like the Christmas tableaus and manger scenes we witness each year, which bring together strands of the various gospels in tandem with the popular imagination. Scholars tell us that the shepherds and magi didn’t enter the stable as pageants suggest, but there is mystery and wonder in the scenes anyway. The same is true for the imaginative collection of Jesus’ final sayings. As Native American storytellers assert, “this may not have happened, but it is true.”
The Seven Last Words are a harmonizing of sayings attributed to Jesus from the four canonical gospels. No one gospel contains all seven sayings, but integrated the sayings give a picture of Jesus’ suffering and death. In that regard, their poetic rendering may be more insightful than unimaginative scholarly deconstruction.
Even if you don’t believe in the notion that Jesus’ death was preordained, a ransom for our sins, or that God required Jesus’ death to deliver us from sin and open the doors to eternal life, the Cross describes the realities of human suffering, abandonment, and death, often at the hands of powerful governmental and religious institutions. The collection of Jesus’ final words gives voice to the experiences of persons in oncology wards, hospices, victims of torture and abuse, among survivors from natural disasters, those of us, including pastors, hunkered down in their homes during Holy Week, and families unable to sit vigil with loved ones dying in the hospital or nursing home.
The traditional ordering of the Seven Last Words is as follows:
1. Father forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).
2. Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43).
3. Woman, behold your son: behold your mother (John 19:26-27).
4. My God, My God, why have you forsaken me, (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34).
5. I thirst (John 19:28).
6. It is finished (John 19:30).
7. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46).
You may choose to meditate upon the meaning of these words as I reflect upon each phrase. In the spirit of lectio divina, or holy/wholly reading, you might let the words have a life of their own, emerging as the spirit inspires you, without concern for historical or literary accuracy. Imaginative in structure and organization, these words are most effective when we let our own imaginations wander, opening to God’s inspiration for you in your unique setting.
My reflections arose from my own imaginative encounter with the text. Although I know these texts from a scholarly point of view, scholarship alone cannot fathom of the mysteries of life and death, and new life. The poetry of these texts may elicit a connection with God in the maelstrom
of human suffering and national insecurity.
The First Saying: Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34). Although these words are omitted in many early manuscripts, they describe the graceful spirit of Jesus’ mission and the providential grace of God, moving even within humankind’s most diabolical actions. They suggest that while the destructive – and dare I say, demonic -actions of institutions and persons may appear to be intentional, they are in actuality performed out of ignorance of the deepest nature of reality. The ego, always seeking to protect itself or hold on to its prerogatives, acts as if it is alone in the universe, existing in a world of threat and isolation. Any prophetic word or challenge to the status quo is perceived to be a threat and not an opportunity for transformation. Evil, misconduct, abuse, genocide, and crucifixion in all their manifestations are “real” – pain and destruction of higher values are not illusory and these warrant strong and just responses.
On the Cross, Jesus felt pain, and so did God! God still feels the pain of the world, not just the pandemic but the daily griefs and deaths we bear, the injustices we experience. Spiritual maturity, growth, and illumination, enhance our sensitivity to pain and injustice. While we may be less likely to polarize or demonize as a result of spiritual growth, spiritual maturity increases the range of our empathy as we experience a “heart as big as the universe,” the sacred heart of Jesus, the vow of the bodhisattva, the compassion of the mahatma. Spiritual stature enables us to balance compassion and justice seeking so that no more crosses be erected in human experience.
Forgiveness does not erase the impact of our decisions, whether by persons or political leaders, nor does it end the cycle of cause and effect necessary for justice to occur. Pilate, the high priests, and the angry crowd will reap what they sow; abusers will experience a deadening of spirit and, if justice is done, appropriate punishment; tyrants will constrict their spirits and experience the appropriate consequences for their injustice and violence. At the very least, turning from God’s vision diminishes our experience of divine possibilities and alienates us from the wholeness God desires for us.
Forgiveness, divine and human, allows for the possibility of healing and transformation. As the hymn “Amazing Grace” proclaims, providential grace teaches “our hearts to fear” and enables us to “see” when once we were blind to the impact of our actions. Forgiveness may mean more, rather than less, pain at first, but it is the pain of the “celestial surgeon,” whose spiritual interventions are intended to excise our hardheartedness, indifference, and sin, so that we might have a clean and empathetic hearts.
Open heartedness in this time of pandemic may mean weeping with those who suffer alone, anger at political leaders who put ego ahead of others’ wellbeing, and grief over the rising death tolls.
These words are a call to self-examination. Where are we oblivious to God’s vision? Where are we apathetic about the pain of the world? Where are we asleep to the beauties of the earth or complacent in relationship to others’ suffering? Grounded in the awareness of our complicity in the evils of the world (what Merton describes as being a “guilty bystander”), we can accept God’s forgiveness and turn around toward a life of care for the least of these as well as those whom we encounter over the breakfast table.
The Second Saying: Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43). Jesus said very little about survival after death. Within the Judaism of his time, Pharisees affirmed the spirit’s survival after death, while the Sadducees were skeptical about any post-mortem existence. Still, it is clear that Jesus saw God’s presence as palpable and powerful within everyday life. The realm of God is not only near; it is right here in healings, hospitality and welcome of outcasts and sinners, and spiritual and ethical transformation. Jesus prays that God’s realm will be embodied “on earth as it is in heaven.”
While we cannot claim to know with exactitude Jesus’ vision of survival after death, we can speculate that whatever eschatology Jesus affirmed involved: 1) whole-bodied personal existence; 2) communal existence and relationships; and 3) a spiritual unity of God and humankind. Our post-modern hopes are prefigured in this-worldly healing communities.
Jesus’ crucifixion is the antithesis of God’s this-worldly healing community. Nothing good can come of the Cross apart from an unexpected burst of divine creative transformation. We are left asking: Can we experience the shadows of everlasting life in the shadows of Calvary?
There is no worked out eschatological theology to be found on Calvary. Jesus is dying and his followers can’t imagine a restoration or resurrection of their beloved teacher. Further, it is impossible to discern with any clarity the meaning of “today” in the Jesus’ promise of paradise. Some see this as Jesus speaking in the present tense, meaning “on this day, I am telling you” about paradise. Others assert that “today” means right now; at the moment of death we are transformed fully into God’s realm of Shalom. Whatever transformation we can imagine must be, from a Hebraic-Christian point of view, a resurrection-transformation involving the whole person, not necessarily embodied in literal flesh and blood, but involving the energies of embodiment, personal history, spiritual orientation, and communal relatedness.
Will the thief “remember” who he is following his death? Will his quest for his people’s liberation (he may well have been a Zealot revolutionary) be remembered in everlasting life? It is my belief that he must remember: justice in the afterlife makes no difference to the person today or in the afterlife, if her or his personal existence – their memory – is lost at death. The best we can do, however, is to see in a mirror dimly, touched by everlasting life that brings holiness and value to our finite and temporal quests for God’s Shalom in this world.
The Third Saying: Woman, behold your son: behold your mother. (John 19:26-27) Dying does not excuse us from living by our ideals. Life goes on and how we respond to our dying process will shape those who survive us. On the Cross, Jesus still affirms the fabric of relatedness. He possesses the spiritual stature to look beyond his pain and death to the needs of others. He calls his mother to care for the beloved disciple, and he calls the beloved disciple to take responsibility for his mother’s well-being.
Death does not end our relationships; it transforms them. Jesus’ care for his mother serves as a model for our own legacy to future generations. Perhaps, Jesus’ words to this generation, our generation, might be: Behold this good Earth; take care of your mother. Behold the children in pain; bless them with your love and justice-seeking.
The Fourth Saying: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me. (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34). These words, straight from Psalm 22, speak to Jesus’ and Psalmist’s experiences of abandonment. While progressive Christians don’t assume divine favoritism or divine causation as the primary factor in every event, many of us know feelings of utter abandonment as we drive to the hospital in solitude to hear what we assume will be “death sentence” from our physician, when we hear the words “your position has been eliminated” despite the highest quality of performance, in moments of agony following physical, emotional, or spiritual abuse, or when we can longer conjure feelings of love for God or an intimate companion. As Christians, we affirm the interdependent nature of life and challenge dualisms of God and the world, male and female, us and them, and mind and body. Going beyond the binary, we honor our connections with creation in all its wondrous and tragic diversity. But, there moments when the ever-present God seems utterly absent and we are lost in the abyss of isolation and unremitting pain. Certainly this is the case for those who die alone and families that can’t visit them as a result of the pandemic.
Many people repeat the shibboleth, “Jesus’ divinity was always connected to God; his sense of forsakenness reflected his human side.” I don’t buy this spiritually or theologically. Jesus was one person; his unity with God was human as well as divine. In fact, with the early church theologians, I affirm that Jesus exemplified the affirmation that “the glory of God is a fully alive human.” Our divinity – and Jesus’ – reflects our vitality. Jesus didn’t have a divine cassette inserted in him; his experience God and his own sense of mission was always part of his total experience, waking, sleeping, eating, preaching, listening; feeling elated and disappointed, energized and fatigued. His God-forsakenness is real and so is ours. This is especially true for those who affirm “God in all things, all things in God.” We can easily ask ourselves, “Where is this universal and graceful God?
How can I feel the absence of omnipresence? How can I experience the abandonment of omni-activity and the loneliness of omniscience?” If God is present everywhere and in all things, this presence must be subtle even for Jesus.
He felt alone as we feel alone and – dare we say – God feels alone when we have abandoned God and in our God-forgetfulness turn our back on the well-being of Creation and our companions on this Good Earth.
Jesus’ prayer of abandonment is a prayer of faith. He is not hiding from God or his feelings. He addresses his pain to God and he calls upon God to respond. In the between moments of revelation and presence, we too can bring our own “cries of absence” (Martin Marty) to the One to whom all hearts are open and all desires known.” Can we hold faith and doubt, presence and absence, elation and desolation in contrast with no guarantees of a felicitous outcome?
The Fifth Saying: I thirst. (John 19:28). Jesus’ death was horrific, but no more horrific than many other deaths throughout history and deaths of those intubated today in hospitals around the world. As painful as Jesus’ death was to him, it took just a few hours. It was not drawn out like the dying process of certain incurable cancers, ALS, starvation, or torture. While Jesus’ pain was whole person pain, and not just physiological, we cannot assume his suffering was exacerbated by his “bearing the sin of the world.” Being crucified is painful enough. Seeing your cause apparently defeated is emotionally devastating enough. Being abandoned by those who pledged loyalty is spiritually overwhelming enough. We don’t’ need to import to the texts an atonement theology of substitution, preordination, bloodshed, ransom, or sin-bearing to see them as life-transforming. What he faced on the Cross is enough: his sacrifice was not to appease God’s wrath or on our behalf to but to the integrity of his mission and his faithfulness to God regardless of the cost.
Still, like millions before and after, Jesus thirsted. He felt the pain of dying in its fullness. He died as many of us due, vulnerable, powerless, and tortured. If Jesus is truly God’s messenger, then God too must feel our pain – God thirsts for our salvation, God passionately seeks to heal the earth, and God experiences the pain of every dying patient. If this is divine pathos or patripassianism, the belief that God the Parent suffers on the Cross with the Son, Jesus, then so be it. While divine suffering, has been labeled a heresy by those who presume to protect God’s perfection and inability to experience pain or suffering, I believe that the deeper heresy is the belief that God does not experience our pain and debilitation from the inside. An unfeeling, and apathetic God can neither heal nor save. Calvary points us to a thirsting God, the fellow sufferer who understands, as Alfred North Whitehead observed.
The Sixth Saying: It is finished. (John 19:30)s Luther asserted, in the midst of life, we are surrounded by death. Death punctuates embodied existence. Each moment is perpetually perishing, dying that new experiences may emerge. As we reflect on Jesus’ sufferings, we might ask: What is finished? What ends on Calvary?
At first glance, it is obvious. Jesus’ work is done; he is now history. But, our personal history is always unfinished and subject to transformation at the hands of others. Jesus’ work is objective in its “facticity,” but the moment the disciples began sharing stories about the Teacher, Healer, and Savior, new histories began. Jesus’ ministry lives on in resurrection moments when the words and wisdom he spoke transform us and when his Spirit moves through our spirits, initiating a new creation and making a pathway within the wilderness of experience.
The words “it is finished” can be a relief. They can suggest that our suffering has finally ended and we will now enter into the rest of the saints. Even here, our death remains unfinished for we live on in memory, DNA, spiritual impact, and grief. Our lives may perish but they live forever more in God’s memory and the ongoing history of the universe.
The Seventh Saying: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. (Luke 23:46) I must confess that I say this prayer, this final “word” of Jesus, as a talisman on nights when I go to bed, painfully aware of my finitude and mortality. I use this to remind me that I’m in God’s care – and to experience a sense of protection – as I face my insecurities regarding surviving the pandemic.
Sleep is like a little death, in which the conscious mind relinquishes control to forces beyond itself. Upon going to sleep, there is no guarantee that this conscious mind and stream of experience will awaken with the new day. As I close my eyes, hoping to awaken but more importantly trusting that in life and death, I am in God’s care, I whisper, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”
Jesus’ words come from the recognition that our existence from moment to moment is contingent on forces beyond ourselves. They also reveal a trust in a power within and beyond us that brought us into life and will receive us upon our deaths. This is an act of trust, and not a description of everlasting life. We can’t intuit the “furniture of heaven” based on Jesus’ confession. The most we can do is – and perhaps this is more important than any postmortem knowledge – is to place the whole of our lives in their temporality in God’s care. This may be the ultimate healing, the sense of peace that comes when life is unfixable, death is all around, and a cure eludes us. We are not alone; we belong to God and nothing – abandonment, thirst, pandemic, or death – can separate us from the love of God.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over 50 books, including FAITH IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC and GOD ON LINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET