Authors of Scripture never write in a vacuum. The faith they convey is their own personal faith. They don't lift it from a book or parrot someone else's belief. They proclaim what they actually live and experience.
At the same time, they're constantly prodded to communicate that faith because of concrete needs in the communities for whom they write. These are communities of believers who, like the author, are trying to integrate faith into their everyday lives, yet often find it difficult to carry out that commitment.
Deutero-Isaiah expresses his unique historical situation in Sunday's first reading (Is 50:4-7). His ministry is to console and encourage Jewish exiles in Babylon. "Yahweh God," he writes, "has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them."
Yet Deutero-Isaiah knows he must always be prepared to receive that word throughout his life. "Morning after morning," he adds, "Yahweh opens my ear that I may hear." Prophets can only proclaim a faith to others which they themselves have experienced.
Once we understand that Biblical Authors always address and respond to historical situations, we'll also hear their accounts of Jesus' passion and death from a different perspective. For instance, when Paul quotes an early Christian hymn on the subject (Phil 2:6-11), he's both sharing his own faith-experience and responding to the needs of the community at Philippi. That means the passage's most important line is the first: "Your attitude must be Christ's." Only those, like Paul, who have imitated Jesus' total giving will one day share in Jesus' total exaltation.
We also realize that the four accounts of Jesus' suffering and death, which we call the Gospel Passion Narratives, aren't just four attempts to report the factual details of the event. They're the evangelists' reflections on what happens when they integrate Jesus' suffering and death into their own lives, reflections shared with others trying to do the same in their lives.
That's why the authors devote little space to Jesus' physical suffering. Because they and their readers experience much more psychological pain than physical pain, it's Jesus' psychological pain that they explore. Like Jesus, they maintain their loving concern for others in the midst of rejection, misunderstanding and opposition. They know they're not the first to have endured such a passion.
But we also see this concern to address the communities' concrete problems in other areas of the narrative. Notice how much space is given to Peter's denial of Jesus. We find the account not only here in Matthew's narrative (Mt 26:14-27:6); it's included in all four. Christian communities need to be reminded that anyone can fall, even the Rock of Faith, the recognized leader of the early Christian Church. Yet, at the same time, this passage hammers home the conviction that faith in Jesus revolves around constant conversion, a conversion every believer experiences. If Peter's denial wasn't somehow mirrored in Matthew and his community, he wouldn't have included it in his narrative.
Cry of Jesus
In the same way, when we hear Jesus yell, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" before He dies, we must look more to the community's needs than to Jesus'. "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" isn't an isolated question. The words comprise the first line of Psalm 22. Psalms were not yet numbered at the time gospels were written. People simply referred to them by their first lines (as we often do with songs today).
Instead of hearing those words as a cry of despair and abandonment, we should hear them as Matthew telling us, "If you want to understand the meaning of the crucifixion, turn to Psalm 22." Those who do will discover one of the most hopeful, trusting compositions in the entire Bible, a song which ends with this statement: "I shall live for God; my descendants will serve God. Let coming generations be told of Yahweh, that they may proclaim to a people yet to be born the justice He has shown." The evangelist reminds us that even on Good Friday, we can't forget Easter Sunday.
It's uncanny: The more we recreate the Sacred Authors' historical situations, the more we're convinced they're addressing our historical situations.