“Father, forgive them”
Message preached on
March 30, 2018
Thank you for the privilege of preaching once again in your Good Friday service, remembering the last earthly words of our Lord, as recorded in the gospels. As first in this august line-up of speakers ready to come to bat, I pray, Lord, that you help me not strike out, but that something I might say will - through your Spirit’s presence in each one of us - aide our following of Jesus. Amen
When they came to the place that is called The Skull,
they crucified Jesus there with the criminals,
one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said,
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
It is a dubious task to be asked to preach on a verse that is not in some of the earliest copies of the gospel of Luke. Look in your Bible. If yours has footnotes (those little numbers or letters beside a verse that take you to the bottom of the page), you’ll read in the fine print: “some early manuscripts do not have this sentence.” Which sounds crazy. This is such a gospel sounding verse, chock full of mercy and grace. Of course Jesus said it! There, nailed to that cross. First word.
When I first contemplated what I might say about this verse today, I pondered who Jesus was referring to in what obviously seems like a prayer. “Forgive them,” he asked his “Father.” By “them,” did he mean everyone starring at him as he died a long and painful death, both those who wished him ill and those who wished him well? Was he referring to the Roman soldiers who just did what they were told? Did he have in mind all the authorities, religious and political, who contributed to what seems to be a travesty of justice – an innocent man strung up just for being who he is? Was he alluding to things much bigger than any individual, something most folks can’t see? Those biblical “powers and principalities” can lead many not to understand their own privilege at the expense of others’ rights. Is this what Jesus was praying about? Was he praying about Sin in general, with a capital S, or the picayune little stuff we do wrong every day? Maybe all that, and more.
My second thoughts, however, had to do with the “why” of this prayer. I might pray for God to forgive someone because I’m having a hard time doing it myself. But I’m not Jesus (thank God!). No one should be forced into forgiveness until they are ready to let go of what needs to be released. And none of us get there easily. Forgiveness is a journey, not a destination, and walking the path of reconciliation is hard and takes time – our own “trail of tears.” Sometimes we don’t get there in this life. Standing here today at the cross we remember that Jesus himself died. His good words and good works didn’t accomplish the task. “I’ve said and done all I could, Father. The rest is in your hands.” Is that what Jesus prayed in this verse? “Forgive them, for they haven’t got a clue.”
And then there is that blasted footnote! … EJ, did you know about that footnote when you assigned me this word? 5-7 minutes to preach on it, you said. Yeah, right!
Some of the early copies of Luke, ones that have survived nearly 2,000 years of wear and tear (paper doesn’t last forever, you know); some are missing this verse. Now, I did some digging and found out that there is an open debate about this very issue. Some believe this verse was put in later by someone who felt it just needed to be here. In the book of Acts, written by the same author as Luke, is the story of one of the first deacons called by the church. One of the first things he was called by God to do was to speak up, and he got killed for it. That, by the way, is something we should mention when calling deacons. This could be hazardous to your health. As good deacon Stephen was dying he said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Jesus sure was speaking through him then. Some believe that Stephen’s prayer was later written into the gospel of Luke as Jesus’ prayer. You could say the Spirit led them to put it here.
Okay, that makes some sense. But there are others who believe that it is just as plausible that someone purposely omitted this verse because it didn’t fit, or mistakenly forgot it, and this omission was copied by some other scribes (they didn’t have copy machines back then – it all was done by hand). So, was this verse inserted or omitted, put in or taken out? I tend to agree with the second opinion, because I know we often leave out what we don’t like from the stories we tell, from the good news we preach, especially if it doesn’t fit in with what we think… Father, forgive us, for we so often don’t know what we’re doing – even (especially) preachers like me… If nothing else, this verse leads us into confession as we stand at the cross… In the words of one of the oldest and shortest Christian prayers:
Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy. Amen