April 9, 2004 — 1:03 PM
"Father, forgive them"
During this Lenten season, and even before, there has been much discussion about the final hours leading to Jesus’ death on the cross. Never in my lifetime have I heard so many people talking about and considering the impact of those hours. Mel Gibson and his movie “The Passion” have sparked interest, both positive and negative, across the nation as well as around the world. His graphic representations of Jesus’ torture and death by crucifixion have given rise to conversations rarely heard outside of religious institutions. We are all struggling to define exactly what Jesus’ death meant and how it brings about salvation. Our attempts to answer those questions define how we understand Jesus’ story during what we now call “Holy Week.” Our struggle is the exact struggle that the Gospel writers faced: how to make sense of everything that happened.
From Luke’s account, we find that Jesus’ crucifixion was viewed as only one small part of the whole story. The actual event is recounted in one verse, verse 33: “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.” This account is very matter-of-fact. There are no in-depth details. There are no graphic depictions of what happened to Jesus’ body as he was dying. Luke knows that his listeners will be familiar with what was involved in this type of death so he does not feel the need to go into detail about it.
Instead Luke, who was a master storyteller, placed more importance on the people and their actions and reactions. He realized that his listeners would not understand the events that occurred if they did not first know about the people who played a part in them. This is what we call “character development.” It’s what allows us to care about what happens to the people who are part of the story being told. It’s what helps us to understand why someone would act in the way that they do in the story. Ultimately, it’s what gives the story meaning.
To help develop the story, Luke calls the two people crucified with Jesus “criminals” or “evil-doers.” He uses this term for at least two reasons. First, it helps fill in the picture of who these two people were. They will have a bigger role in the following verses, but now it is important just to introduce them. Second, it helps the listener understand how Jesus was viewed by the Roman authorities. Jesus’ death alongside these two implies that he was executed as a criminal among criminals. Jesus was guilty by association. Jesus’ followers knew that this was not truly the case, but much of the rest of their world thought it was true.
Luke’s concern for people’s actions and reactions also is evident in verse 34 which reads: “Then Jesus said, ‘Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his clothing.” There is a long-standing dispute over whether or not Jesus’ words in this verse actually belong in the text. The sources are divided on whether it is authentic to the original text. Elegant arguments have been made both for and against its inclusion. And yet, the power of its message begs for its inclusion in the final text.
Jesus, in the most unimaginable place, continues to teach his followers through example. Jesus continues to embody the love of God that calls for forgiveness and reconciliation. At the very moment of his death, Jesus shows his concern for all those around him, all those involved in bringing him to this very point of death. Jesus, God with us, intercedes on creation’s behalf to bring reconciliation with God. He commands God to start doing something God had not previously been doing: “Start forgiving them because they do not realize what they are doing.”
It almost seems as if God was giving Jesus a way to get out of having to go through with the death on the cross. And instead of taking God up on that offer, Jesus says, “No, it has to happen this way.” Jesus refused to use his divine nature to stop his death from happening. He refused to try to find a different way to bring about reconciliation between creation and its Creator. He knew that the actions of the people were necessary for true reconciliation.
But at the same time Jesus makes it clear that the people did not know what they were doing. They were not acting consciously to disrupt their relationship with God. Nor were they acting believing that they were working to bring about reconciliation with God. They were acting in the only way they knew.
That’s why Jesus asks the Father to forgive them for what they are doing. The word that Jesus uses in his command is translated here as “forgive.” Elsewhere, that same word also is translated as “allow” or “tolerate” or “let be.” God had to let the people do what they were doing – had to give them freedom – in order to restore the relationship.
God the Father had to let go of the offense that had caused the rift in the relationship with creation. In so doing, God allowed for the people to freely choose to accept God’s love and to enter into covenant with God.
Jesus knew that through this act of letting go, God would free creation to come to the realization that they were not in a right relationship. They did not currently know that there was anything wrong. They believed they were keeping covenant with God. Only when they had realized that they had strayed would they be able to turn once again to God and accept God’s offer of reconciliation. Only when they witnessed Jesus’ obedient acts would they understand how reconciliation was possible. But the people had to be free to do this on their own, in their own time. If God had forced them to do it any other way, the relationship would not be true – it would be coerced.
Much of Jesus’ ministry had centered on forgiving, allowing, letting be, and tolerating. He had tried to show those around him that God’s love creates the space for the other to be. His life demonstrated that all are welcome to be a part of the community. Jesus consciously sought to eat and talk with those who were excluded from the Jewish community. Jesus welcomed everyone just as they were. This welcome without a requirement to change first allowed the people the freedom to be changed by God’s love.
Luke understood the importance of the freedom forgiveness brings. That is why, in his account of Jesus’ final hours, he included these words from Jesus: “Father, forgive them.” Luke knew that his listeners needed to hear this message of forgiveness and freedom so that they would be able to understand what Jesus’ death meant and how it would bring them salvation.
Luke’s message comes to us today to tell us the same thing: Jesus died to bring us forgiveness and freedom. Jesus continues to ask God to forgive today on our behalf. He asks so that we will have the freedom to turn toward God and God’s offer of reconciliation in Christ. All are welcomed by Jesus into God’s community. We are freed by God’s forgiving act in Jesus to recognize how we have turned from God. We are freed to amend our ways and to return to right relationship with God.
Jesus Christ died so that we could live as forgiven people. Let us live our lives in joyful response to this amazing act.
Let us pray…
Holy and mysterious God, we come here today with so many questions. How could these events have happened? What do they all mean? How do they work for our salvation? Why did it have to happen in this way? And your answer is simply, “Love.” Your love offers us freedom to turn toward you; freedom to be in relationship with you. Be with us in these hours and the coming days as we witness the depths of your love for us and celebrate its power. Amen.