Friday, 25 January 2008

The Perplexing Last Words of Jesus

There is no doubt that Jesus’ impact on history is unique. Whether the overall impact of this great Jewish prophet and mystic was positive or negative for humanity is up to the unprejudiced individual to judge, although, in my opinion, an objective assessment is not that easy.
Few people would argue that Jesus has been both passionately loved and vehemently hated by men more than any other historical or mythical figure. 
Under the inspiration of Jesus’ name, the greatest acts of sacrificial love have been performed and the finest pieces of art have been created; but, alas, also in his name, the most ugly wars have been fought by his fanatic followers, not that he is in any way responsible for that. 

In my opinion, Jesus’ teachings centered on love have had an undisputable positive effect on humanity, while the man-made doctrines about his ‘atonement’ and his supposedly equality with God have been a stumbling block and are responsible for many destructive divisions in mankind. The aim of this article is not an overall account of Jesus’ life but the analysis of his last words, and specifically the prayers he prayed, as recorded in the Gospels.

I wish I were sure that all the words which, according to the Bible, were uttered by Jesus are definitely his own and have not been put into his mouth by the writers of the Gospels much later. But, to be honest, I am not. My doubts are reinforced by the fact...
that some of those words, supposedly uttered by Jesus during his last dramatic hours, contradict each other. They make the greatest prophet look somewhat confused as to who he was and uncertain about his status with God, and also about his mission. However, for the sake of this study, I shall assume that the words attributed to Jesus in the Bible are actually his very own words.

Let us look at the account of the ‘Last Supper’, the meal Jesus shared with his twelve disciples on his last night, which many scholars consider to have been a Jewish Passover meal. Referring to Judas Iscariot, Jesus said: “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born." (Matthew 26: 24)
Here Jesus appears certain of what had been written about him and what would the end of his earthly life be. He verified it further by instituting a sacrament, the meaning of which, alas, was going to be an obstacle for the unity of different Christian Denominations. 

This is what the Scripture says: “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and, after blessing it, broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom’." (Matthew 26: 26-29)

Through the above quoted verses from Matthew’s Gospel, it is clear that Jesus was sure about his imminent death, as a necessary sacrifice for man’s ‘New Covenant’ with God. Yet, in spite of this, later on he prayed that he might avoid this death!

“Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here, while I go over there and pray.’ And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.’ And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will’." (Matthew 26: 36-39)

Fair enough. Although a prophet and a giant of faith, Jesus was still a human being and he wanted to live. Nevertheless, to his credit, he submitted his will to God’s will. In the mean time, his disciples who were supposed to watch and pray, had fallen asleep… How very typical of Christians to this day!

“And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cup cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done’." (Matthew 26: 40-42)

In a way, Jesus admitted that his spirit, too, was willing but his flesh, like that of his disciples, was weak. There is nothing strange about Jesus’ attitude, so far. He was truly human, but at the same time willing to be obedient to God.

The above story, however, does raise some questions, even among those who insist that all scripture is “God’s Word”. Who heard and later recorded the words of Jesus’ prayer, if the disciples had fallen asleep? But even if they were awake, Jesus had purposely gone “a little farther”, as the scripture tells us, obviously because he wanted to pray in secret. Naturally, during his dramatic last hours, he wanted to be alone with God. Besides, he always believed, and he had preached so, that one should pray in secret.

Here is what he had said: “But when you pray, go into your closet and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Mat 6: 6)

Now then, if Jesus wanted to pray in secret, it is childish for anyone to assume that afterwards he reported the content of his prayer to his sluggish disciples; more so, since that content would make them doubt his commitment and his courage as Son of God, and hence shake their own faith.

Following the account of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and his seizure by the Roman soldiers, we cannot help being confused by some of Jesus’ words. Let us quote what Matthew has written:

“Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.’ And he came up to Jesus at once and said, ‘Greetings, Rabbi!’ And he kissed him. 
Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, do what you came to do.’ 

Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?’ 

At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, ‘Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.’ 
Then all the disciples left him and fled. Then those who had seized Jesus led him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders had gathered.” (Matthew 26: 48-57)

By reading and meditating on the above verses, we are inclined to think that it was Jesus’ decision to die on the cross and not God’s! How else could we explain his question: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”
Apparently, according to this verse, God was ready to submit to Jesus’ will and execute his bidding!
If Jesus wanted to escape seizure and death, then God would send a legion of angels to his rescue! This is exactly what Jesus said.

Yet, a little while ago, when praying that the ‘cup’ of crucifixion might be taken away from him, Jesus implied that it was God’s will for him to die the death of the cross!
Now then, what is bewildered Christian supposed to understand and believe?
Was God ready to submit to Jesus’ plan to fulfill the scriptures of the prophets, but should Jesus change his mind about it, God would be willing to grant his desire, or was God himself bound by the prophets’ prophecies, in which case Jesus’ boasting about his Father being ready to send angels to his rescue was simply rhetorical and unspiritual?
All this does not make sense to someone who believes that every word in the Bible is God’s word.

Here is a further account of the ‘trial’ of Jesus, as John gives it: “The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.’ When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, ‘Where are you from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to him, ‘Will you not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?’ 
Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin’." (John 19: 7-11)

Once again it is obvious that Jesus was certain that God had predestined him to be crucified! And who could escape God’s plan? Never mind that at some point he prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” Jesus very well knew that what he was asking for was not possible.

Returning to Matthew’s Gospel, one more scripture comes to make things more confusing. It records the last words of Jesus on the cross: “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ 
And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, ‘This man is calling Elijah.’ 
And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.’ And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.” (Matthew 27: 45-50)

Now, what was God supposed to do in order to show that he had not forsaken Jesus? To go against his age-old master plan for the ‘salvation’ of mankind, something which Christians believe Jesus’ crucifixion to have been ordained for? To blow up the ‘redemption’ of mankind for the sake of his timid ‘only begotten son’, in order for him to live a few more years on this earth - a life whose value is not compared to heavenly life’s glory? To cancel the fulfillment of Old Testament scriptures and render them false? In that case, how would humanity be set free from the curse of the so-called ‘original sin’ without Jesus’ sacrifice?

Did, then, Jesus, who had so often claimed to be “one with God”, believe that his Father at the same time was separate from him, coming to his rescue on request or forsaking him at will? It doesn’t make sense to me.

If indeed Jesus, at his last most sacred moment before he yielded up his spirit, complained loudly to God in such an indignant manner - thereby giving food to the mob to mock him and his mission - then he was neither a prophet nor a mystic.

Moreover, if he considered his crucifixion an outcome of God’s abandonment, how could he have been the perfect sacrifice for the ‘salvation’ of mankind? His crucifixion would rather have been an execution against his own will, and not an offering of the ultimate sacrifice, wouldn’t it?

Another thing that I never understood in the above-quoted scriptures is this: if the name of God in Hebrew is ‘Eli’, then why the bystanders thought that Jesus was calling Elijah? Did they not know their own language?

With the above simple syllogisms over Jesus’ confusing last words, I had no intention to offend anyone or diminish the wonderful teachings of Jesus. It is up to the reader to take this study deeper, if indeed one is not afraid of the Truth. Either the words the Gospels attribute to Jesus are not actually his, in which case the Bible is unreliable, or they do belong to him, in which case he is not what his followers claim him to be. Trying to reconcile the irreconcilable leads to hypocrisy or religious schizophrenia.

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