He's Calling For Elijah! Why We Still Mishear Jesus
Christians usually respond that God had to turn his back on Jesus because Jesus took on the sin of the whole world, and God can't look upon sin, so he turned away. We hear this in sermons and worship songs. "The Father turns his face away." "God can't stand sin, so he turned his back on Jesus."
On one level this provides a tidy theological answer. But at a more visceral, emotional level, it's still unsatisfying. In our own families, when a child has erred, we might get mad at them. But would we forsake them? Abandon them? Kill them? There was a case last year of parents with a very strict form of discipline. They thought their daughter was "rebellious," so they starved her and beat her. They locked their daughter out of the house in the middle of winter. She froze to death. We call that child abuse.
Is that what God did to Jesus? Left him on the cross to die?
This also raises the theological problem of the broken Trinity. Christians are Trinitarian; we believe that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, eternally united in purpose and divine love. But does the Father break fellowship with the Son on the cross? Are they pitted against each other?
We in the West live in a predominantly guilt-based culture; we tend to think in terms of guilt and punishment. When someone is guilty, they must be punished. So if Jesus took on our guilt and sin, the punishment is death. God's justice must be satisfied, so Jesus must be executed. It's disturbing, but that's how we understand the story.
But much of the world, including the ancient biblical world, thinks less in terms of guilt and more in terms of shame and honor. A few years ago I read the book The Bookseller of Kabul, about life in Afghanistan. And some of the most disturbing parts were the descriptions of honor killings. A woman somehow brings shame to a family, and she is killed to take away the shame and to restore honor. It doesn't matter if she committed adultery or was raped. It doesn't matter if she was the perpetrator or the victim. If she has been made impure, the impurity must be removed to restore family honor. And in many cases, a father will kill his daughter. Or a woman's brothers will kill her. It will be described as an accident, but everybody knows what happened.
So modern objections to Christianity say that this is the essence of Christian teaching on the Cross. God's son has been made impure, tainted by the sin of the world. So God restores his honor by killing his son. This puts us Christians in a bind. If we defend this theology of the Cross, then it seems like our Christianity does the same thing as honor killings in Afghanistan. And we lose our basis for saying that those honor killings are wrong, because our God does the same thing. Does he?
I find it interesting that Matthew and Mark tell us that some of the hearers misheard Jesus. That opens up the possibility that the same has been true for others, and for us. Have we misunderstood this cry from the cross? The crucifixion narratives do not explicitly tell us what Jesus' cry meant. Both Matthew and Mark record the cry, but neither unpacks the meaning. They just let it stand. Neither actually says that God turned his face away, turned his back on Jesus, or abandoned him. That's an assumption that we bring to the text. It doesn't come from the passage itself.