“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing (Luke 23:34).”
Jesus’ intercession for his murderers, made as life flowed from his body, has long been problematic. There is something about our Lord invoking the promise of forgiveness for his crucifiers that vividly brings home the unbounded expanse of God’s love.
If you find this unbearable, your discomfort might be mitigated in several ways. First, this verse does not appear in some of the early manuscripts of Luke’s gospel. There has also been supposition that Jesus is praying only on behalf of the criminals on either side of him, rather than for the accusers, judges and executioners, effectively limiting the scope of his intercession. In a forgiveness series I offered some years back, a bright and intense pastor betrayed increasing agitation as our grappling with Jesus’ forgiveness revealed the radical bridging of previously defined distances and the collapsing of long-standing walls. “Jesus asks God to forgive them; it doesn’t say God does,” he protested. Where to begin, beloved one? By suggesting that it is Jesus who misperceives the saving power of God?
With or without Luke 23:34, the culmination of Jesus’ death on the cross is indeed the crux of God’s forgiveness. Jesus brings the agape love of God into direct engagement with the power of death wielded by religious, political, and economic forces. Boundless grace confronts the ultimate force that the world has to offer. Which will prevail? The critical question for individuals and faith communities is this: “In which of these powers do we place our ultimate trust?” Our answer to this question goes a long way to shaping our lives.
Initially astounding us, Jesus submits to Roman and Temple might. He rebukes his disciple who reacts to aggression with defensive violence: “No more of this! (22:51).” To the chief priests, the elders, and the police who have come for him, he assents, “This is your hour, and the authority of darkness (22:53).” But Jesus’ submission is not an abandonment of his mission; rather, it is an act of fidelity that enables him to deeply penetrate the “authority” of death. In the face of life-taking power, Jesus gives, rather than “giving in.” Jesus continues to fully embody who he is and the realm that he has come to reveal. He is showing us something of what he has meant in the Sermon on the Mount. He interrupts the economy of death. He does not collude with the darkness in any way, eschewing coercion, self-justification, and efforts to prevail in any manner that destroys. He refuses to be enmeshed in the over/against dynamic that diminishes the human and obscures the light.
Jesus responds to the Council’s interrogation, “Are you the Son of God?,” with “You say that I am.” When Pilate asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?,” Jesus responds, “You say so.” He doesn’t react. His way of life will do all the talking that is necessary. Even in the dock, Jesus remains unshackled in spirit, quietly refusing to cooperate with their assignations of identity and meaning, avoiding their tortured and tilted arguments that constantly recycle violence. We are reminded of numerous scenes of resonance “along the way:” refusing to let the spirit in the Capernaum synagogue define him; responding to Satan’s biblical proof-testing with an incarnate word; exposing Peter’s conflicted allegiance and domesticated understanding even when he has the right answer (“You are the Messiah”).
What is Jesus doing for Pilate, the Council, Herod? He’s unbinding them! They will now be released for life-changing accountabiilty. Jesus is opening the door for them even as their door closes on him. The crowd demands the release of Barabbas, the armed revolutionary. In common terms, Barabbas seems more of a “savior” to those who believe violence promises deliverance. Interesting, Pilate “forgives” Barabbas (apleusen, a form of apoluo) at the same time that Jesus is “delivered” to the will of the mob. We are invited to a rich exploration of the differences between the forgiveness Jesus bestows on his killers and the “forgiveness” offered Barabbas. We might also note the stark contrast between the saving power of the gospel and Pilate’s resigned delivering of Jesus to the will of the angry crowd.
The wisdom of Caiaphas, that “it is better for us that one person should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation won’t be lost,” has been the timeless formula for sacrificial concepts of peacemaking. “Washing one’s hands, ” like Pilate, repeats the surrender to higher powers of control in the hope of emerging personally unscathed. Jesus’ giving deeply penetrates every complicity with death’s domain. As Jesus gasps and bleeds from the cross, his prayer spirits the fore-giveness of the God whose love will overcome death. His Psalmic cry in Matthew and Mark roots the prayer in the experience of full solidarity with the helpless victim throughout history. It is only love like this that holds the power to save us.
In Luke Chapter 23 of my Duct Tape Bible, there is scrawled at the bottom of the page: “The Way of Jesus is far more threatening than armed insurrection.” With Jesus, life is not taken; it is given. Walls come down, not people. God is revealed as both Source and Completion. These distinctions bring down traditional theological structures, which initially feels quite threatening. But we must also realize that in these structures doctrine has often been the instrument of captivity and and forced separation.
The anguish that people like my pastoral colleague and I experience at the depth of divine forgiveness is because it heralds the collapse of much we are deeply invested in, and lays bare excuses for limited love that I have repeated again and again as dogma. It reckons that the kin-dom is awesomely and terribly revealed as far greater than we have wanted to imagine. It cannot be administrated. Repentance is the only option we have left. And this is promising territory.
“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Father, forgive them, for they are under the spell of death and they don’t even know it. It affects everyone. “Faith” has become an equation to be measured. Justice has reflected the politics of expedience. Gethsemane became the place where the petitions of the disciples were sorely distinguished from the prayer of our Savior. Peter was quite courageous in following Jesus after the others have fled, but in the courtyard the boundary of physical death was a limit he would honor with greater fidelity than his oneness with Jesus. Even the women who risked continued identification on the third day perceived the outcome through a lens of domination that had been forced on them. All of this is quite recognizable for us.
Do we really not know what we’re doing?
–in our constant justifications for war?
–in relentless damning of others?
–when we exclude people in the name of God?
–the way we endlessly pick at wounds?
“Father, forgive them . . .” Such unsettling grace! Thank God for the trouble Jesus is causing.
It is well past time to get back to sermon writing for Sunday; perhaps I can come back later to improve and clarify this post. Let me close by examining one last part of Luke’s narrative.
On Golgotha, Jesus is executed between two criminals. One of them “blasphemes” Jesus: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebukes the first: “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive back things worthy of what we have done.” Even in his execution, the first is a ward of the state. The second, while under the same sentence, is astonishingly free, his confession and clarity of sight wedded in an awful beauty. “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” “I am dis-membered, broken in and by this world; re-member me!” He prays for all of us. Jesus says, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Paradise is a reference to the wholeness of God’s creation, the “garden” of Genesis 2-3. “Today you will be with me” is the affirmation of unbroken communion with God and with creation. You will be with me in God’s original intent, in the creative Spirit of God that ever gives life. This is happening. What God gives is never predicated on “deserving.” I hear Jesus’ response to second man’s confessional testimony and prayer for remembrance as Jesus’ declaration of community that is taking shape even in the most trying of circumstances.
As the scene continues to unfold, the crowd is watching, but is no longer mimicking the powerful. They don’t yet recognize Jesus in his fullness, but they are already in a different spiritual place, in the wake of a different power being released. Life already rising from the ruins. And Easter is near . . .