Jesus’ final words, at least according to Luke, were, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” They are, for us, a model of faithfulness under extreme duress, a kind of faithfulness we would want to have when things go wrong for us, especially when death seems imminent. What a crown it would be for a Christian life to end with these last words! Most of us will probably die unconscious and possibly addled. Some of us will die suddenly without time for thought. But we like to think of our faith as such that these words would express our honest sentiments in extremity.
Scholars have pointed out that these words have a symbolic meaning as well as significance for personal spirituality and reference to the character of Jesus. Jesus returns his spirit or breath—the word “pneuma” means both—to God who had given him the Holy Spirit at his baptism. God sent Jesus his Holy Spirit to make him who he is. In his dying, because of who he is, he commends his spirit back to God. Then, of course, God gives spirit and breath back again to Jesus at the resurrection. The strength of life comes in giving it away. Part of the meaning of the resurrection is that, if you give your life away, commending your spirit to God, God returns it to you.
The symbolic reference in Jesus’ words is not only to his own baptism. When God created Adam, according to Genesis, he first made a clay doll and then breathed his breath into it to give it life. All of us sons and daughters of Adam receive our life-breath from God. In recognition of this, at our death we should return it to its divine source, in this way accepting the life God has given us. Rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s, to God belongs our life-spirit. We should remember this when we are not in situations of extremity and think our life is our own, or worse yet someone else’s.
Symbolic theology aside, however, contemplate, if you will, the extremity of Jesus’ situation. His prophetic mission to recall Israel from hypocrisy and set it on forthright paths of justice and humble worship had failed. He had many followers at first who were enthusiastic when they thought he would change things, and then fell away when he did not. He had a few followers who vowed to follow him to the death, but they didn’t understand his message and then they too fell away. The hypocrites he criticized beat him. He was stretched naked on a cross, in front of his mother whom he had spurned, claiming the parentage only of God. Yet his Father God was nowhere to be found. Had he really believed that God would save him and usher in a new kingdom of righteousness? We don’t know. But if he did, then his shock must have been an infinite disappointment. Had he really hoped that angels would come and rescue him as Satan’s temptation had suggested? If so, he now knew they would not be in time—no winged creatures to pluck him off Mount Doom like Frodo and Samwise for a happy ending. What happened to the God with whom he had been so intimate, whom he encouraged people to call “Abba, Daddy”? Whatever the rich intimacies of his own spiritual life, God did not answer when Jesus prayed bloody sweat at Gethsemane. God was not with him when the Temple and Roman authorities decided his fate so unjustly and impersonally. God was not with him when the soldiers whipped, pricked, beat, and humiliated him. Jesus was utterly alone save for the rough hands of the soldiers who were putting him to death as part of a day’s work, exposed naked before the impotent eyes of his mother, her women friends, and the disciple he loved. He would hang there unhelped until he died. God was conspicuously absent on Golgatha. Jesus had expected more: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!”
This desolate, Jesus’ last breath was, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” In saying this, he won the victory. So God turned out to be no intervening help against the bad guys. God turned out to be no inner consoling voice. God turned out to be indifferent to Jesus’ mission. God the intimate Father-companion simply wasn’t there. God was only the creator of darkness amidst cosmic flashes, of seismic earthquakes and natural forces for which human affairs do not register. Jesus then might have hated that indifferent creator. Instead, in dying he commended his spirit to God. He did not lose it to God, he commended it to God.
However you conceive God today, as a transcendent creative act with no personal characteristics or as spiritual person who was just being neglectful, sulking, or treacherous—worse than Judas or Peter, or sadistic in making innocent Jesus suffer for some cosmic purpose, now you conceive God as the object of Jesus’ ultimate intentions. In all the desolate horror of that dying, Jesus made God the object of his gratitude for his life-spirit. Though his God, as always imagined before, had vanished, Jesus made him reappear as his life-giving Father, for whom life-taking was part of the gift.
We know so little about God that our conceptions hardly matter. But we do know, because of Jesus’ dying words, that we can bind God to ourselves as the object of our ultimate love and gratitude. This does not turn God suddenly into a friendly person. It only makes God the object of those acts in extremis by which we become fully persons. We become fully human when we can take as our lover, our beloved, the Creator who gives us this life, so often like a crucifixion, and commend our spirits to that God. Jesus glorified God in his dying, despite God’s absence. Jesus glorified himself in his dying, by becoming so human as to thank God for his life and death, and to return his spirit to the one who made his holding it longer untenable. Jesus glorified us in his dying by showing us how to overcome God’s indifference, alienation, and distance: if we commend our spirits to God, God is our beloved just as much as we are God’s.