How Jesus Responds to Theodicy

A Good Friday Homily

Mark 15

This homily was preached in the Rev. Dr. Linda Clader’s Homiletics course at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in the Fall 0f 2010

There’s a story of a group of Jews in Auschwitz who gathered together one day to put God on trial. Their charge against God was cruelty and betrayal for allowing such horrible suffering to take place. Some of them offered the usual answers to the problem of evil and suffering, but, in the end, no one was satisfied or consoled with these answers in the midst of the current obscenity. God remained painfully aloof (if not complicit) to the crimes against the chosen people. They could think of no legitimate excuse for God, nothing to let God off the hook, so the Rabbi pronounced the verdict: God is guilty and worthy of death.

The Gospel story we just heard is another example of horrible and obscene suffering: an innocent preacher of love and non-violence is dragged through public humiliation, shameful mockery, brutal torture and agonizing death. We hear similar accounts of horrible and obscene suffering almost every day, from the young miners trapped and buried under coal dust in China to the Palestinian families in East Jerusalem who have to watch their homes be demolished by bulldozers.  We know similar accounts of horrible and obscene suffering throughout history in litanies of wars, violence and genocide. Even in Church history, we see Christians using Scripture (even the Scripture we just heard) to justify violent anti-Semitism and other forms of atrocious racism and slavery.

And we have our theological attempts to keep God irresponsible for all of this suffering. We talk about suffering as one of the grave consequences of God’s gift of human free will, but I really don’t see how that applies to earthquakes and tsunamis and other “Acts of God” that destroy thousands of lives each year.

All of this just begs the question: What kind of terrible God would allow such suffering to take place? What kind of God sits idly by while children starve to death or are murdered or worse?

And then there’s the suffering in our own lives that might seem minor in the grand scheme of things, but still, deep down, still really hurts. We’ve all experienced some form of loss or betrayal or disappointment and those wounds stay with us, beggin that same question in our hearts: What kind of terrible God is this?

Theologians call this problem “theodicy,” the problem of evil, the attempt to hold God’s omnipotence and God’s omni-benevolence with the world’s horrible and obscene suffering. And honestly, all of the theological attempts to justify God end up looking like sponges of sour wine trying to numb us from the reality of pain. Maybe that works for some and for a little bit, but in the end, God still looks like a monster.

And I’m sorry to say that I don’t have an answer that’s going to solve the problem. And sometimes I honestly wonder why I stay so committed to this God who seems so terrible.

I don’t have an answer, but there is a question that keeps me committed. Jesus does not say much in this chapter. In fact, only six words come from his mouth, but four of those words are enough to keep me committed. Those words are Jesus’ response to theodicy and it’s not an answer, but a question: “At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”

I’ve been reading a lot of Jewish literature recently and there is this boldness in Jewish prayer that is often lacking in Christianity. There is a questioning of God, a frustration with God, an audacity to put God on trial and to protest against God. This “protest prayer” (often seen in Job and in the Psalms) is summed up well in the words of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who says, “I have not lost faith in God. I have moments of anger and protest. Sometimes I’ve been closer to him for that reason.” Jesus, who was steeped in this rich spirituality of protest prayer, screams a prayer right out of his tradition’s treasure chest of protest: the Psalms: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (The opening line of the 22nd Psalm). Jesus felt the same human frustration that I feel when I try to reconcile a God of love with a world of suffering. When Jesus feels betrayed by God, he prays to God and he questions God. And he’s not afraid to honestly express his feeling of rejection.

It’s a pretty interesting prayer when you think about: asking God why he’s absent. If God is really absent, then whom is Jesus talking to?

Jesus feels like God is absent, but his faith inspires him to pray to his apparently absent God. His faith suggests that God does hear him and that there is much more going on than just this miserable suffering. His prayer inspires me to bring my own frustration to God and to believe that I am being heard by God even when I feel like God is absent. And it inspires me to believe that the suffering I experience (that we all experience) is not the end of the story just as Jesus’ suffering is not the end of the story.

Theodicy, the problem of suffering cannot be understood by our finite minds. There is no good answer. God will always end up looking like a monster. The problem of suffering compels us to pray like the Psalmist, like Job and like Jesus, inviting us to bring all of our frustration to God in prayer. And in prayer, God holds us in our anger and frustration the way a parent holds a child who is throwing a temper tantrum. Even as the child is kicking and screaming, the parent still holds the child lovingly, knowing that the child does not (and perhaps cannot) understand.

This prayer of protest shines new light on the cross and on theories of atonement. Perhaps we can see the cross as God’s way of saying, “You don’t understand what’s going on here, but I understand your anger and your bitterness. And so I will let you put me on trial and convict me as guilty and even put me to death. I will let you throw of all your pain and confusion at me. And I will continue to love you and hold you. I will let you murder me and bury me. And I will continue to love you and hold you.”

The group of Jews in Auschwitz who put God on trial did something very startling after they convicted God as guilty and worthy of death. After the Rabbi pronounced the verdict, he looked up and said, “The trial is over. Now, it is time for evening prayer.” Perhaps these Jews understood that, even while they were putting God on trial and blaming Him for all the suffering in their lives, God was still holding them lovingly like a parent holding an angry child. And after their trial, all they could do was melt into God’s loving arms.

The Gospel invites us to be honest with our anger and confusion with suffering, even if that involves putting God on trial and throwing a temper tantrum. The good news is that God holds us patiently in our anger and will continue to do so until our kicking and screaming subside and we finally learn to rest in God’s arms of love, knowing that we are truly children who do no understand.

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2 thoughts on “How Jesus Responds to Theodicy

  1. You’re very wrong. Eloi Eloi, is in reference to 22nd Psalms – as it is a prophecy, regarding the Christ, and his necessary sacrifice.

    Also note, that at no time, do Jews feel a need to have “Protest prayer”. You will note in Job, and in many other places, in spiritual texts, that such condemnation against God is considered blasphemy – God gave a similar account to Job, noting that he had no right to call out against Him – as he was not there, nor did he make all things.

    Please keep that in mind, before you begin to say such defamational things. Thank you

    1. Thanks for your critique, Ex0dus. I agree that “Eloi Eloi, is in reference to 22nd Psalms — as it is a prophecy, regarding the Christ, and his necessary sacrifice.” But I also believe that is only the tip of the iceberg and that the meaning of those words (and all the words of the Psalm for that matter) is multi-layered, meaning different things to different people at different times. For instance, Jews would certainly not see that Psalm as a prophecy “regarding the Christ, and his necessary sacrifice”, especially if that “Christ” is Jesus of Nazareth.

      You say that Jews “at no time” feel a need to have “Protest prayer.” I use the term “Protest prayer” to describe the bold prayers of petition and lament that I find in the Psalms, and in the works of Elie Wiesel, Zvi Kolitz and David R. Blumenthal (who writes about a theology of protest). All of these are written by Jews (or Israelites and Judahites in the case of the Psalms).

      In terms of Job, I think that your interpretation is valid, but also highly superficial. A text as profound and as penetrating as Job deserves much more attention and insight than your comment displays. It also deserves much more attention than this comment can give. But I do want to say that, in the Book of Job, the LORD tells Job’s friends, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7). And then, the narrator concludes, “the LORD accepted Job’s prayer” (42:9). Job’s friends (who were inclined to call “such condemnation against God” blasphemy) are actually chastised by the God whom they were trying to protect while Job (whose honest frustration and “genuine covenant interaction” put God on trial for His apparent injustice) is honored and accepted by God for speaking what is right.

      I’m sorry if I offended you by saying “defamational things.” I understand that these are sensitive issues. I do not write these things to arouse discord. I write these things because I have grown closer to Christ and the irresistible love of God through this understanding and I hope others might as well. If that’s not the case for you, then perhaps it is best for you to dismiss me as “very wrong.”

      Thanks again for your comment.

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