The seventh Word, St. Luke 23.46
Faith – Formula or Trust
Among books on Prayer and Spirituality I have read in the last 50 years, the author who has made most sense to me is Neville Ward, a Methodist Minister and Theologian. Rereading some of his meditations for Good Friday gave me a jumping off point in preparing this homily. He begins by noting that the Church has always insisted on the primacy of faith. I think, however, that we need to distinguish two ways in which faith has been understood in western Christianity. It has often come to be taken as assenting to dogmatic statements or intellectual formulae. I turn rather to the biblical understanding of faith, characterized as trust in and commitment to, a person be it another human being or God. Ward comments“[Y]ou have as much chance of finding God at the end of an argument as you have of finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.” (Friday Afternoon, p. 128).
The Words from the Cross
Contemporary biblical study has concluded that it is an impossible task to reconcile the series of words recorded as Jesus was dying on the Cross: they possibly represent different traditions that developed in disparate church groups, but they are used by the individual writers as part of their particular interests and overall themes. Traditionally, the final word in John is not the final word used Liturgically. John’s final word, (τετελεσται) “it is finished”, is much better understood as “accomplished” rather than something like, “it is over”, and one might wonder what can be said after that. Perhaps, the words of Jesus that Luke places last might be seen to suggest, in the briefest possible compass, just what it was that Jesus accomplished.
The first thing that leaps out at us when we turn to Luke 23, verse 46, is the opening word, Father. Jesus is addressing God directly, and we know from our oldest sources in two of Paul’s letters (Rom. 8.15 & Gal. 4.6) and in our oldest Gospel, Mark, that Jesus used the Aramaic word “Abba” to address God: a tiny but significant point, for this is a more informal form of address, as to one’s earthly father: not the reverential form “my Father” normal in Jewish prayer. When we address God, speak to God, the usual understanding is that we are praying, so what Luke gives us here is Jesus’ final prayer to a God to whom He is so close that he is, indeed, his Father in whom he has total and explicit trust. This, surely, speaks volumes about the mission that Jesus has declared ‘accomplished’. Clearly, there have been and are, many views of God: some have seen god as a cruel tyrant, demanding an annual sacrifice of children; to some, God is a being who can be bribed and manipulated, and to yet others, God is an empty word, the expressing of a deep, but fantasy longing for a safe haven.
But this final prayer of Jesus presents us with a loving God to whom Jesus said we are so well known that “the hairs of [y]our head are all numbered” (Lk.12.7). But, more than this, the prayer suggests a life-long commitment to God and a deep understanding of the human condition. Jesus comes across to us as an unflinching realist. By that I mean that the accounts strongly suggest that his understanding of God and our relationship to the Divine Being leave no room for sentimentality, self-pity, carefully nurtured grudges against others and a thousand other psychological ploys that we, almost instinctively, use. The prayer implies the total acceptance of the present circumstances.
It is so different from so many of our own prayers. In desperate situations like epidemics, natural disasters, and the personal chaos we sometimes allow our lives to descend to, we so often turn to fervent prayer, even if we can hardly remember when we last engaged in that activity. And what kind of prayer to do we use? “God don’t let the roof of my house get destroyed; God please keep me safe from the SARS virus” and so on. A moment’s thought will show that these are manipulative prayers, and what is more, often imply “destroy my neighbor’s house and not mine”: hardly the kind of love for others so strongly stressed in the teaching of Jesus. Neville Ward points out that it behoves us to note carefully what Jesus did not say, and goes on, “he did not say that death is the wages of sin. He did not say that God would save his friends from the violence of life; indeed he warned them to be prepared for it.” (Ward p.128).
God the Manipulator ?
For all sorts of reasons, Western people in the 21st century find it hard to hold onto trust in God and, at the same time, to take a hard-headed, realistic view of the human condition. It is assumed that if you are going to be truly realistic, you probably have to drop faith in God, and, on the other hand, we are faced with far too many examples of people who hang on to that faith by ignoring the realities of life. This is partly because Christian thinkers by and large have shied away from coming to grips with what science tells us about the world; they cling to the view that God is behind all the events of the on-going world, as though sitting in a massive heavenly traffic control station. To say, as Jesus, reported by Luke does, that God knows how many hairs you have is not to say that God will prevent your going bald.
Jesus did not have any idea of the scientific developments of the last two centuries, but the amazing thing is that his attitude to the real world is compatible with them. He speaks of natural events and says, “Your Father … makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Mt. 5.45). He knows only too well the potential depths of anger, cruelty and hate that can be practiced by human beings; this is part of the reality of the human situation and must be dealt with under the over-arching faith that God’s love is the ultimate power of the universe. We hear how Jesus deals with such anger and hate in one of the first words of Jesus given us by St. Luke in his Passion narrative: “Father”, that same word again, “Father forgive them”. It seems that Jesus’ strength and calm, and his ability to communicate that to others, comes from a serene acceptance of the real word and its events, but with a life founded on a deep faith that God is (as St. Paul says) “all and in all”. (I Cor 15.28).
This issue of faith, with which I began, turns out to be pivotal. If one wanted to put the matter in less religious terms, one might say that each of us has a deep, deep intuition of what human life is all about. It might be called a vision of the world, but that would be too precise and so I prefer to call it a deep intuition, which often we may not be able to articulate. Nevertheless it is there, influencing all our thoughts and actions. If deep down, we really trust that good is stronger than evil, justice than injustice, and life not death is the ultimate scheme of the universe, we may be able to share the kind of acceptance Jesus brought to living: our faith though tested by all the evidence that seems to contradict such an intuition will hold. If deep down our intuition is much less optimistic, resulting from the obscurities of our very early experiences (Ward, p.131), we may feel that the reality of massive evil in the world presents an insuperable obstacle to faith. Indeed, for most of us there is likely to be some oscillation between these two positions. Perhaps the cry “Eli Eli lama sabach-tha-ni” - 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me' (Mt.’s version at 27.46) - hints that Jesus was not immune from such an oscillation.
If that were so, Luke is clear that it is not the last word. Recalling Psalm 31, Jesus dies with the affirmation that everything is held together by God’s sustaining power. The metaphor of the arms and hands of God in the Book Deuteronomy expresses God’s love in choosing Israel and keeping her safe: “The eternal God is your dwelling place,// and underneath are the everlasting arms”. (Deut. 33.27).
“Into your hands I commend my spirit” is emphatically not a statement of passive surrender; it is, rather, a strong affirmation of a life lived in a real world of failure and sin, hate and suffering, but lived with the unshakeable confidence that God’s love is stronger than all these enemies of life. It is a great mistake to assume that Jesus knew what followed after one’s last breath; doubtless, he shared the Judaic view that this life was not the end, that God’s sustaining hands were there beyond the final frontier of earthly life, but he was given no supernatural previews of what was to happen. So he died, as he had lived, totally committed to God, sure of the ubiquity of the divine love:
“There was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour … and the curtain of the Temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.” (Lk. 23.46).