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The Last Word: A Good Friday Meditation on Luke 23:46 (Luke 23:46)

by Patrick Henry

Dr. Henry is professor and chairperson of the department of religion at Swarthmore (Pennsylvania) College. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 8, 1981, pp. 385-387. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


What happens when we die? An unsettling question, but this way of posing it does keep it at armís length, a subject for theological or philosophical or medical discussion. What happens when you die? What happens when I die? Surely the question cannot come closer to home than this. But it can. The Christian gospel abandons all evasions, short-circuits all subterfuges, and probes beneath even our personal encounter with what some call blessed release and some call the Grim Reaper. The Bible faces the question: What happens when God dies?

God became a human being. The doctrine of the incarnation is a relentless assault on everything that makes sense. A baby whose swaddling clothes are dirty and need changing, a man being executed as a deterrent to other potential criminals: Can this really be God?

Since Christianityís beginnings, fastidious souls have been turned off by the messiness of incarnation. They have kept God spotless by surmising that Jesus only appeared to be a human being, or that the divine nature and the human nature operated in parallel, even in synchronization, but independently and without ever touching. Some have supposed that Jesus ate food, as the Gospels say he did, but he did not digest it, for digestion leads to defecation, and surely the toilet is outside the range of Godís experience. Indeed, experience itself as we know it -- the chances and changes of this mortal life -- has been thought by many to be precisely what distinguishes the world from God. In this view, to talk of Godís experience is to talk of God ceasing to be God.

We would like the Bible to be tidier. Why must it confuse our minds with "I and the Father are one" and "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit"? Isnít it simply preposterous for God incarnate to ask why God has forsaken him? Couldnít God, while dying, think of something more edifying to say than "I thirst"? How can our minds stretch enough to take in "They know not what they do" and "All these things were done according to the Scriptures"? Why doesnít the Bible go away and leave us alone?

I

Yet here is another Good Friday -- the 1,950th Good Friday, give or take a year or two -- and we work our way through Godís, dying words, finally reaching the last of the seven: Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit." I was surprised to discover how readily my memory of the text had accommodated itself to my sense of what would be fitting. I instinctively thought of this last word as being spoken quietly. Here Jesus has come through the emotional wringer of the other six words to a full and confident resolution, and he steps quietly through the gates of death.

But that is not what Luke says. He does not tone down what he found in Mark. He does not write simply that "Jesus said," or even that "Jesus cried," but that he "cried with a loud voice, "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit." Surely, we suspect, God would have come to terms with death. How can we bear the terror of our own death if there is even the slightest hint that God did not go gentle into that good night? Why this "crying with a loud voice"? Why wonít God pull himself together and be God?

There is an easy way to restore Godís serenity. Since Luke wants to impress a Greek audience with his skills as a historian, we can argue that, had Jesusí last word been a whispered prayer of resignation, the skeptical reader would immediately ask: "How did Luke know what Jesus said? Luke himself tells us that Jesusí acquaintances, from whom the story would have had to come, were standing at a distance when these things were going on." But Luke has an answer for that one: the "loud voice" could have been heard at the foot of Calvary. The decibels of Jesusí cry bridge the initial gap between the event and the report of it. In other words, when God died he was not distressed; he was simply taking care that history be a record of what actually happened. He was disarming the skeptics in advance.

To read Luke this way, however, is to domesticate his Gospel. We like to trim the Bible to the dimensions of what we think is fitting and respectable. With Luke, that exercise is fairly easy, since his own editing of Mark pulls the sting out of many events and sayings. But for just this reason we have to listen sharply for the offense of the gospel in Lukeís pages. What he has to say may be all the more monstrous for its apparent congeniality.

II

Luke does not report the cry of dereliction, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?," but there can be as much message in the stage setting as in the dialogue. We are obsessively word-conscious, and assume that all meaning resides in the content of what people say. We are surprised when a psychologist enters a Sunday school room and instantly explains that the teachersí exasperating discipline problems can be solved by painting the walls a different color. What do we see when we pay attention to Lukeís story, not just to the seventh word of Jesus?

Notice the isolation of Jesus. It is not so drastic as the Garden of Gethsemane in Markís and Matthewís account: "Then all the disciples forsook him and fled." Indeed, it is not so drastic as the crucifixion scene itself in those other two Gospels. They report the presence only of certain women who had followed Jesus from Galilee; Jesusí other disciples were apparently still in hiding. Luke does not use the term "disciples" here, but does have "all Jesusí acquaintances" standing at a distance as onlookers. Still, given Lukeís general portrayal of the close relationship between Jesus and his followers during the years of ministry, the scene at Calvary is one of stark loneliness. The one who the night before had shared an intimate meal is now all by himself, dying.

There is no more devastating curse than loneliness. If a person is radically lonely and fears there is no remedy, faith, hope and love -- the things that abide -- are not simply inaccessible; these ultimate, sustaining realities are literally unbearable to those whose penultimate realities, including their own identity and relationships, are in total disarray. They pray to God for guidance and then curse God for guiding them. They imagine utopias and then abandon all hope. They suspect all love is coercion. To speak of God to someone in the despair of unrelieved loneliness is to engage in an unintentional act of bludgeoning. It is like the well-meaning and theologically orthodox but unfeeling ramblings of Jobís friends, who richly deserve his outburst: "I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all" (Job 16:2).

III

The Apostle Paul, in one of his most daring challenges to how we think things ought to be, said that Christ became a curse on our behalf (Gal. 3:13). "Sick, sick, sick," one might say -- and many in our time do. How neurotic, even psychotic, can you get?, they ask. Nietzsche speaks for such critics when he writes with disgust of the New Testament: "These little men are fired with the most ridiculous of ambitions; chewing the cud of their private grievances and misfortunes, they try to attract the attention of [God], to force him to care!" (The Genealogy of Morals).

What Nietzsche cannot stand is what the church proclaims as gospel. The good news is for those who are sick. It is for you and it is for me. It is concocted of repentance and forgiveness, of judgment and grace, and it is warranted by a God who has become a human being who has become a curse. The Bible tells us that God cares, not because he has a sense of moral obligation or feels a sentimental pity, but because he knows. God instinctively sides with Job, not with the comforters.

Imagine Peter present at Calvary. He hears Jesus cry out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Always the intervener, always the one who knows what to do, Peter immediately reassures Jesus: "No, God has not abandoned you; in fact, Jesus, remember you are God." Peter would then surely have heard a rebuke he had heard once before: "Get behind me, Satan." Just as the prophet Hosea portrays Godís excruciating knowledge of love -- God cannot abandon a wayward, faithless Israel even though he would very much like to -- so Luke and the other evangelists portray Godís knowledge of loneliness: God knows the absence of God.

It is because God incarnate knows bitter loneliness that "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit" rings true. Godís death is no easy passing over, no falling asleep, no pie in the sky. Jesus "breathed his last," Luke tells us: just the way you will breathe your last, the way I will breathe my last, the way our fathers and our mothers, our husbands and our wives, our brothers and our sisters, our daughters and our sons, have breathed, are breathing, or will breathe their last. The gospel is no neurotic refusal to face death. It is just the opposite -- a refusal to evade it. God died. "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit" is spoken from the other side of despair. Our minds boggle at the thought that God has got to that other side by going through the despair to get there. It cannot be helped. The Bible is a mind-boggler.

Luke does not belabor the point. If we were writing the story, we could not withstand the temptation to explain everything, to lay out exactly what is implied in the words "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit." But the Bible is not the sort of book we would have written. The crucifixion narrative, like nearly everything else in the Bible, finally puts us on the spot. We come for answers, and the Bible rivets us with questions that we thought could safely go unasked.

IV

Persons in despair -- and doesnít that, at one time or another, include us all? -- turn frantically to others in hopes of finding the answer, despite their own impenetrable conviction that there is no answer. The trouble is, in a sense they are right. No one else has an answer to impose on them. Truth which comes from outside bears all too easily the aspect of wrath. The answer which is promise, and not threat, is locked away inside each of us,, and it is an unexpected answer -- the only kind, after all, that can do an end run around an unanswerable question, The answer is the discovery that the question "What happens when I die?" is not the ultimate question, as our culture has tried hard to persuade us it is. Not even death, the gospel tells us, separates us from God, for God has died.

The last of the seven words -- "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit" -- is not the conclusion of a bargaining process. Jesus does not say, "I give you my spirit in exchange for the resurrection day after tomorrow." In this part of the story Luke leaves it at "he breathed his last." The ultimate question is not "What happens when I die?" but "In whom can I trust to the end?" The Christian is called to trust in God who sides with Job, who will not let his people go, who dies alone.

To take the full measure of this gospel, of this good news, is to suffer a rude shock to our sense of propriety. We do not like it when Paul asserts that God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise. We do not like it, and we do everything we can to forget it. Good Friday is an unwelcome aid to our memory, a yearly reminder that we have not even begun to figure things out. The seven last words deliver a severe beating to our pride.

If the gospel makes sense, it makes a very odd kind of sense. It makes the sort of sense that can be found in two "Resolutions" written by Jonathan Edwards three days apart in the year 1723 (from Jonathan Edwards: Representative Selections, with Introduction, Bibliography, and Notes, edited by Clarence H. Faust and Thomas H. Johnson [American Book Company, 1935], p. 42):

50. Resolved, That I will act so, as I think I shall judge would have been best, and most prudent, when I come into the future world. July 5, 1723.

51. Resolved, That I will act so, in every respect, as I think I shall wish I had done, if I should at last be damned. July 8, 1723.

Can we imagine what it means for these two resolutions to come to exactly the same thing? -- for that is just what they meant to Edwards. How he would try to live was quite without regard for whether he would be spending eternity in heaven or hell. His trust in God lay far deeper than the question "What happens when I die?" In whom shall we trust to the end? -- that is the question. "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.


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