With Our Last Words…

On the Liturgical celebration known as Good Friday, communities all over the world offered services of contemplation on the seven last saying of Jesus on the Cross. If you are not familiar with those sayings, they are:

1. Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do (Luke 23:34).
2. Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43).
3. Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother (John 19:26–27).
4. My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34)
5. I thirst (John 19:28).
6. It is finished (John 19:30).
7. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit (Luke 23:46).

As you will notice, these seven last sayings are compiled from the four gospels. Not every gospel includes all of these sayings. For example, in John’s Gospel, Jesus’s last words are, “It is finished,” whereas, in Luke Jesus uses his last breaths to say, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

When some people notice this variance, they are not sure how to interpret it. Jesus couldn’t have said both at the same time. Did he say one before the other? Why did one author record one saying and the other author didn’t? I used to ask questions like this when I imagined the scriptures as if they were a documentary film unfolding frame by frame in a linear fashion.

However, over time I learned to read scriptures differently. I learned that scriptures were written to be heard which is different than something being written to be read. In that time, very few people were literate and traditions were passed along orally. In general people didn’t interpret in the way that we do now. When they heard a story, they had very likely heard it many times and filled in any blanks with the history that had already been embedded in their communal memory.

When stories were shared, they were meant to tell the people something about who they were as a people as well as their hopes and dreams. So what we see in the different last words of Jesus in the different gospels is likely a reflection of what was important to the different communities for whom the scriptures were written. When we look at the gospels together what we are looking at is a library as opposed to a single volume.

At the time of their writing, the communities that the different gospels were written for didn’t have these seven last words. They had the 1, 2, or 3 last words that they thought were relevant. In the Matthean and Markan communities, Jesus’s last words were those of a person who felt forsaken. He had done all of this good with his life and it hadn’t been appreciated. These words were meant to point the hearers to Psalm 22, which begins with those very words and ends triumphantly telling the hearers that it will be the future generations that actually get what Jesus was all about.

In Luke, Jesus’ last words pointed the hearers to Psalm 31 (specifically verse 5) which communicates to the hearers that Jesus wasn’t destroyed by people’s hate, but rather willingly went to his refuge which was the abode of God’s eternal heart. The Jesus of the Lukan community is still in the power position even when dying on the Cross. He Forgives, blesses, and then decides to give up his spirit and leave his body behind. Likewise, when he decides to get back in his body he will do that without any permission from the earthly authorities.

Lastly, the Johannine community uses the last words to convey that Jesus completed the transaction he came to fulfill. Where John 19:28 says that he said, “I thirst” in order to fulfill the scripture, it is pointing the hearer to Psalm 63 communicating that God’s love is better than life. This is yet another indication that Jesus knew what he was doing. As he said in this same gospel, “No one takes it [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again (John 10:18).

Ultimately, what all of these different last word traditions communicate is that the last words we speak are a reflection of the life we live. As we reflect on these words this Good Friday, I invite you to consider the legacy of the last words you might leave to your communities. How will they reflect the life you have lived?

To hear more on this, go to the video below:

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