Seven Last Words

views updated


Of the seven last words of Jesus from the cross, only the cry of dereliction is found substantially in more than one Gospel (Mt 27.46; Mk 5.34); three are reported independently by Luke (23.34, 43, 46); three others by John (19.2627, 28, 30). These words are listed here in the order in which they usually appear in the harmonies of the Gospels, since the chronological order in which they were spoken cannot be determined with certainty. Each Evangelist, depending on the Passion narrative found in the early catechesis, has selected, arranged, and elaborated on his material according to his specific plan.

First Word. "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk 23.34). Though not found in a number of important manuscripts, it is almost certainly an authentic word of Jesus. For, as echoed in Acts 7.5960, forgiveness is one of the most typically Christian themes in the gospel tradition. According to Lk 23.3537, both Jewish rulers and Roman soldiers see in the Crucifixion the refutation of Jesus' claim to a divine purpose in life. Our Lord's prayer for forgiveness is motivated by their respective ignorance. Basically, ignorance is applicable only to the Roman soldiers who unwittingly carry out the execution. However, from the aspect of sal vation history, both Jew and pagan (Acts 3.17; 13.27;17.30) were blinded to the supreme revelation of God's omnipotence and wisdom in the cross (1 Cor 1.2324). Biblically, therefore, their combined ignorance is sinful and incurs guilt. But, the ignorance of both Jew and pagan, which serves as a motive for forgiveness, becomes inexcusable after the Resurrection (Acts 17.3031).

Second Word. "Amen I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with me in paradise" (Lk 23.43). One of the crucified criminals, acknowledging the justice of his condemnation, confesses the innocence of Jesus, thereby eliciting an act of faith in the claim for which Christ dies. Adopting what is probably the correct reading of Lk 23.42, "Lord, remember me when thou comest in thy kingly power," the penitent malefactor appeals for pardon at judgment when Jesus returns as king to inaugurate His kingdom. To this request, which looks to the future, Jesus opposes His "today," promising that the thief would be with Him in paradise.

In early Hebrew thought, to die meant to descend into sheol, where the just and the wicked alike endured a miserable existence. Later, when belief arose in retribution even before the Resurrection, divisions appeared in Sheol; a place called gehenna was reserved for the wicked, whereas abraham's bosom (Lk 16.22) became the abode of the just. Although paradise in Jewish thought at the time is not equivalent to heaven, in this context of Christ coming immediately in His royal power, the penitent is assured of happiness by being with Him.

Third Word. "Woman, behold thy son. Behold thy mother" (Jn 19.2627). John, who has put meaningful Old Testament words on Jesus' lips or has seen deeper meaning in what Jesus endured (19.24, 28, 36, 37), certainly intended to have Jesus express by these words something more than filial piety. Here, as well as in 2.111, Mary is addressed by her Son as "woman." The strangeness of the address is due to John's theological intentions. The word, "woman," aptly portrays Johannine symbolism with regard to Mary's role in giving life to the "Life-giver." As Adam calls his wife "Life" (Zωή) in Gn 3.20, because she is the "mother of all living," similarily John suppresses Mary's name, calling her simply "woman," in order to present her as the new Eve, the mother of all whom Jesus loves in the person of "the disciple whom he loved." John also never mentions this Disciple's name in order to emphasize his symbolic role. Thus, John proclaims the spiritual motherhood of Mary, the new Eve, with regard to the faithful represented by the beloved disciple.

Fourth Word. "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" In the Greek transliteration of their Semitic form, the words of Jesus, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me" (Mt 27.46; Mk 15.34), appear differently in Matthew (λ λ λεμ σαβαχθάνι) and Mark (λωΐ λωΐ λαμά σαβαχθάνι). Mark's is a more Aramaic rendition of the opening words of Psalm 21 (22): ēlî ēlî lāmâ 'ăzabtānî, while Matthew's is a mixture of Aramaic and Hebrew. Palestinian tradition would naturally have preserved the saying in Aramaic; but because the bystanders in Mt 27.47 and Mk 15.35 appear to have confused the first words with the Hebrew form of Elia's name (ēlîyâ ), it is more likely that Jesus Himself uttered the cry in Hebrew, not Aramaic.

Totally unacceptable are the interpretations that treat the saying as a cry of despair and see in Christ's abandonment a dissolution of the hypostatic union, a withdrawal of grace from His soul, or a cessation of the beatific vision. These views are inconsistent with the love of God and with a proper understanding of the hypostatic union, and they are without foundation in Scripture. Much more acceptable is the view that, in the light of Psalm 21 (22) as a whole, sees in the cry a final utterance of unshaken faith in God. Though the Psalmist, perplexed by God's abandoning him to his enemies, begins with a lament (v. 222), he does not despair. Rather, anticipating deliverance, he moves to a hymn of thanksgiving, calling upon all that fear God to join in adoration (v. 2327). Finally, the conclusion (v. 2832), which has points of contact with Deutero-Isaia, triumphantly proclaims that the suffering and vindication of the just will bring others to acknowledge God's mercy, thereby hastening the establishment of God's kingdom on earth.

That the interpretation of the saying lies in this direction is supported by the inspired witness of the early Church. Jesus Himself probably uttered only the opening words of the Psalm, whereas the Evangelists used the entire Psalm as an OT "testimony" (see testimonia) to line Passion. Thus, the godless who "wag their heads"(v. 89) are mentioned in Mk 15.29, their words of mockery being placed in the mouths of the chief priests in Mt 27.43; in Jn 19.24 the dividing of Christ's garments is clearly understood as a fulfillment of Ps 21 (22).19; lastly, in Heb 2.12 the same words of thanksgiving (v. 23) are put on Christ's lips.

Although the allusions to the Psalm correspond to the historical facts, it was used primarily to indicate that all had taken place according to God's will as revealed in Scripture. Consequently, if Christ's lament is recorded at all, it is not meant to describe His collapse, but rather to show that God's eternal counsel of salvation was being fulfilled. This fulfillment far transcends the prophetic outline presented in the Psalm: the conversion of nations follows, not only because of the manifestation of God's justice in the sufferer's deliverance, but in consequence of his suffering. Only in the Suffering Servant (Is 52.1353.12), i.e., in Jesus Himself, is the full redemptive mission of suffering accomplished (see suffering ser vant, songs of the); only through Him is God's kingdom definitively established.

Fifth Word. "I thirst" (Jn 19.28). John records Jesus' thirst to bear witness to His humanity against do cetism and to show the fulfillment of God's plan. Vinegar or sour wine, the soldiers' ordinary drink, is given Christ. John intends to teach a deeper meaning in this reference to Ps 68 (69).22: "In my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink." Since the Psalm describes the just oppressed man, typical of the poor lowly ones whose prayers God hears (v. 3335), Jesus on the cross fulfills the Father's plan of salvation for His poor by drinking the cup that the Father has given Him (Jn 18.11; cf. Lk 24.2527, 4446).

Sixth Word. Having received the bitter wine, "Jesus said: 'It is consummated,' and, bowing his head, he gave up his spirit" (Jn 19.30). Instead of the first two Gospels' cry of dereliction, John uses the highly significant word τετέλεσται, whose dominant meaning is "to bring to completion," "to fulfill." The completion of the work entrusted by the Father to Jesus is defined as the disclosure of God's "name" and the deliverance of His words to the Disciples (17.38). His mission is accomplished by transforming mankind and by opening up to it a truly spiritual or divine life through His death. The completion of His self-oblation (17.19) is the means of man's rebirth into eternal life. In this context, the unusual phrase "he gave up his spirit," emphasizes John's theme that through Jesus' death His Spirit was given to men to take away the sin of the world and to make all those who believe in Him God's sons (1.2934; 1.1213).

Seventh Word. "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (Lk 23.46). Luke substitutes for the cry of dereliction an expression of trust and faith [Ps 30 (31).6]. Jesus' supreme surrender is made not in anguish and desolation, but in the confident submission of the Son of Man to His heavenly Father's plan of redemption. He willingly entrusts His life to His Father, crowning a life of obedience with His sacrifice of supreme love.

Bibliography: h. conzelmann, Theology of St. Luke, tr. g. buswell (London 1960). c. h. dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge, England 1953). f. m. braun, La Mère des fidèles (Tournai 1953).

[s. makarewicz]