Friday, March 21, 2008

A Plea for Vindication

What are usually considered the last words of Jesus from the cross are also words usually misunderstood. Our church used the seven utterances from the cross for services in the Lenten journey. The last one comes from Luke 23:44: “Into thy hands I commit my spirit.” The usual interpretation of these words depict them as a final resignation before dying.

Jesus is at the point of death. He then “lets go” and expresses his trust in God to care for his “spirit”, by quoting from Psalm 31:5. The psalmist in Psalm 31 is overwhelmed with trouble, calls on God to be his safe place, and to make it right. “In you, O God I seek refuge, let me never be put to shame, in your righteousness deliver me…into your hand I commit my spirit.”

Such an interpretation, however nice it is, misses the point being made in the gospel. These are not words of resignation. They are an appeal for justification. Like the psalmist in distress, Jesus is appealing to the highest authority to vindicate him – to correct the wrongful judgment.

This alternate interpretation of Jesus’ words is supported by Luke’s usage of Psalm 31, the concept of death from a Jewish perspective, and Luke’s emphasis on salvation history. A vindication view of Jesus’ death and resurrection hleps us to see the entire “Jesus event” as God’s work of salvation instead of just focusing on the cross.

Luke’s placement of the quote from Psalm 31 as the Jesus’ last words cross sets the stage for his understanding of the resurrection. God overturns the verdict of this world that condemned Jesus - at worse as a blasphemer and at least as an insignificant revolutionary. For Luke, the redemptive work of Christ was not just his death on the cross, but his whole life: his incarnation, his teachings, his miracles, and his passion.

Luke concludes his gospel with two resurrection appearances. In the road to Emmaus appearance, he “interpreted to them all the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27) and is revealed to them in the eucharistic breaking of the bread. When Jesus appears to his disciples, he tells them that all his words and everything written about him (in the law, the prophets and the psalms) must be fulfilled and that they are to be witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:44-49). For Luke, the resurrection demonstrates that God hears and honors Jesus’ appeal and thus sets him as an authority higher than all the authorities of the world. In that authority and power the church is created, whose story Luke will continue in the Acts of the Apostles.

(More...full article at Checked Luggage site.)

The Orthodox funeral practices reflect the belief that death is not just the cessation of life, but the beginning of dying. During the year of mourning the deceased undergoes the cancellation of their sins as their flesh decomposes. “One’s evil deeds were thought to be embedded in the flesh and to dissolve along with it.” Jewish thought at the time of Jesus was that the painful disintegration of the flesh left the bones (which contain the personality) as a framework for a new body on the day of resurrection.

But at Christ’s death, God interceded. God overturned the judgment of the world and through the resurrection, prevented the dying process from taking place. An expiation of sin in the dying was not needed, as God vindicated Jesus. “Taken in its cultural context, the claim of resurrection for Jesus asserts that his death was wrong and has been overturned by a higher judge. This cultural interpretation contrasts sharply with a theological one: that Jesus’ death was right and necessary and required by God ‘to take away the sins of the world.’”. (Quotes, Bruce Malina, see full article.)

From this perspective, our salvation was not in the suffering of Jesus prior to his death. That suffering, at the hands of cruel men, was evil and wrong. Our salvation is in placing our lives in Christ, heeding his words and following in his footsteps, being born anew from the kingdom of this age into the kingdom of God.

“Into thy hands I commit my spirit,” Jesus’ last words on the cross, are a call for vindication. He has been wrongly condemned to death and uses the words of the psalmist, who in a similar situation appealed to God for justice. In the resurrection, God intervenes, overturning the power of this world and asserting the righteousness of Christ.

We can almost hear in the resurrection the message of God at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:35) “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him.” For if we listen to and follow him, placing our lives in him, he who vindicated Jesus in the resurrection will also raise us up with him in the last day. Into your hands, Lord, we commit our spirits. Hear our plea, amen.


roadtripray said...

I never really thought that "into your hands I commit my spirit" was as much a final resignation before dying as it was an acknowledgment that He belonged to God and was returning. I see it as acknowledging that our souls belong to God and will return to God.

Maybe I'm speaking in circles and am saying the same thing as those who say it's a resignation. Except I think of Jesus' last words often, usually in the context of trusting God and accepting God's will. Now the more I think about it I suppose that is sort of a resignation -- I'm resigned to giving God control and letting go.

I'm not sure if my thoughts about Jesus' final words are closer to the "typical" thoughts on it or are closer to yours. I can really see how those lines of thought intersect one another.


Stephen Taylor said...

Ray, the resignation doesn't have to carry a negative meaning, such as "giving up." It is more as you say, a "giving over" in trust to God. And there's nothing, in my opinion, wrong with that view, it's just that I think Luke was trying to express something different. Good to hear from you.