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"Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." —Luke 23:32-38
Father, forgive. Jesus speaks the first word not to us but to God. For three years he has spoken to us, preached, taught, exhorted, instructed us. Now, as we have hung him up to die, Jesus, turning from us, speaks to his Father.
Having been those who once were directly addressed, we are rendered into bystanders, overhearers of a conversation deep in the heart of the Trinity. Now, at the end, the once adoring crowds are gone; no one is left to listen to Jesus but the Father. And the word he speaks is a word that only God can dare say to God, for only God can forgive. We have no right to pray this prayer for Jesus. And what does the Son say to the Father? Of all the things he might pray, he prays, "Father, forgive. They know not what they do."
I've spent most of my life trying to figure out what I'm doing. Isn't that how they defined "human growth" in that child development class? "Human growth is the process of increasing self-awareness"? We begin with naked instinct, mechanical reaction, hormonal response, but gradually, with puberty and a college education, gradually we learn where we are and what we're doing. We learn to seek pleasure and to avoid pain. We learn to avoid certain unproductive, dysfunctional behavior and to engage in more fruitful, beneficial conduct, and, now possessed with a keen sense of "self-awareness" we move reflectively, knowledgeably about the world, "our" world that, through our knowledge, we have made our own.
I took a course in seminary in Christian ethics. Christian ethics is the weighing of various ethical options and, through careful, rational deliberation, discerning the one right action and then pursuing that option in a prudential way.
I made an A in that course in rational ethical deliberation only to flunk when I tried actually to do that in life.
One little problem with our attempts to be thoughtful, prudent, reflective, and careful people: we're also the ones who on a Friday—just rationally following the best of Western jurisprudence—tortured to death the very Son of God.
Why? Well, we didn't know what we were doing. We did not then know, do not now know, will never know what we're doing. We're all stumbling in the dark. I once knew a man who, on sentry duty one dark night in France in the Second World War, was surprised to get a perfect shot of a German soldier coming toward him down a country road. When he went up to examine the body, he discovered it to be one of his best friends from another unit. He did not seem to be much consoled by my, "But you didn't know what you were doing."
Meeting with my stockbroker about my pension, I watched as he pulled out the charts and the graphs. I asked, "Does this mean that you have now elevated stockbrokerage from the level of casino gambling?" He said, "No, it means that I am giving you the illusion that I really know what I'm doing."
But we don't know what we're doing! It's a fact, not an excuse. Most of our malice is exercised without aforethought.
Roman soldiers, Jewish Sanhedrin, raving mob—how did each of you decide to murder God's Son? Well, we thought we were standing up for law and order. We believed we were supporting good biblical values. We were just soldiers obeying orders. We had this gut feeling. We weren't actually in charge of the proceedings; it was done by the government. Everything was done in accordance with the best legal advice.
In truth, it is as Jesus names it: "They don't know what they're doing." Wasn't that what the Tempter promised us back in the good garden? There was the Tree of Knowledge. Eat the fruit of that tree and our "eyes will be opened," we will know, that is, we will be just like God, for what is it that separates us from God? God knows everything, but we are severely limited in our knowledge.
At Satan's invitation, we took, we ate, and our eyes were opened. And what did we see? Our genitals! Our eyes were opened and we knew only one new thing: we are naked and afraid. Our new-fangled knowledge only exposed our vulnerability.
Matthew 25:31-46, parable of the great judgment, one of the nastiest little stories Jesus ever told. At the end, the Son of Man shall ascend the throne and judge all the ethnoi, all the peoples. On his left, the goats who, having not done good to the "least of these," having not recognized the incognito Christ among the poor, the imprisoned, and the oppressed are punished.
On the judge's right, the sheep—those who having reached out to the "least of these" are eternally rewarded.
Isn't it good to know the answers to the questions on the final exam? There will be judgment at the end, but on what basis? "I was in jail and you visited me!"
Here's the shock. In Jesus' story, the sheep talk exactly like the goats. Same words. Same reaction to the judgment of the Son of Man. "Lord, when did we see you?" The sheep and the goats talk the same.
Now, you expect the goats to be stupid. They didn't go to Sunday school, don't use gender-inclusive pronouns for God, don't volunteer for Habitat for Humanity.
But in Jesus' story, the sheep are as dumb as the goats! The sheep say the same thing as the goats: "Lord, when did we see you?"
The blessed sheep knew enough to visit the prisoner, give the cup of cold water, and so on, but they don't see Jesus any more clearly than the unethical, apathetic goats. They're all stupid! When it comes to seeing Jesus, in the end, you can't tell a sheep from a goat. Both have nothing more to say for themselves before the throne of judgment than the dumb: "Lord, when did we see you?"
Jesus' story of judgment is more than a peek at ethically correct behavior; it's a concluding symphony of ignorance. If you thought that Jesus waited for twenty-five chapters before finally, at the end, letting us sheep in on the inside scoop, forget it. The disciples who have had such difficulty figuring out Jesus for twenty-four chapters, in the end, are just as stupid as they were at the beginning. Following Jesus since chapter four, they go from dumb to even dumber by chapter twenty-five.
We're all amateurs, in regard to Jesus. There is no way to commandeer and to manage the sovereign judgments of a righteous God. Surely there is some way to be enough "in the know," to be politically progressive enough, to ensure that we are on the right side, that we can bypass God's judgment because we so knowledgeably see Jesus.
No. We don't know what we're doing.
This is a reach for you and for me. In the days after Hurricane Katrina, a much raised question was, How could a good God do such a thing? God's got some explaining to do for this one. In our theology, theodicy—the justification of the ways of God to humanity—is the only game in town. Trouble is, the Bible has no interest in theodicy, particularly in trying to explain natural disasters to humanity. Natural disasters are the preoccupation of biology rather than the Bible. In the Bible, it's more "homodicy"—justifying sinful humanity to God. It's human sin, not hurricanes, that is the Bible's big concern. Second Corinthians 5:19 doesn't say Christ was in the world, reconciling God to the world but rather God was in Christ, reconciling the world to God. How typical of us to think that it's God in the dock, God who has got to be justified to creative, compassionate folk like us. How typical, until we get to the cross.
And don't you find it curious that the first word, the very first word that Jesus speaks in agony on the cross, is "Father, forgive"? Such blood, violence, injustice, crushed bone, and ripped sinew, the hands nailed to the wood. With all the possible words of recrimination, condemnation, and accusation, the first thing Jesus says is, "Father, forgive." Earlier he commanded us to forgive our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. We thought he meant that as a metaphor. (I can't tell you how long it's been since I've uttered a really good prayer for the soul of Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden.) On the cross, Jesus dares to pray for his worst enemies, the main foes of his good news, us.
How curious of Jesus to unite ignorance and forgiveness. I usually think of ignorance as the enemy of forgiveness. I say, "Forgiveness is fine—as long as the perpetrator first knows and then admits that what he did was wrong." First, sorrowful, knowledgeable repentance, then secondary, gracious forgiveness. Right?
Yet here, from the cross, is preemptive forgiveness. We begin with forgiveness. Jesus' first word is forgiveness. It's as if, when God the Father began creating the world, the first word was not "Let there be light" but rather "Let there be forgiveness." There will be no new world, no order out of chaos, no life from death, no new liaison between us and God without forgiveness first. Forgiveness is the first step, the bridge toward us that only God can build. The first word into our darkness is, "Father, forgive."
"Father, forgive," must always be the first word between us and God, because of our sin and because of God's eternal quest to have us. Forgiveness is what it costs God to be with people like us who, every time God reaches out to us in love, beat God away. Here on the cross, God the Father had two possibilities, the way I see it. One, God could abandon us. God could have said, "All right, that's enough. I did everything possible to reach toward them, embrace them, save them, bring them toward myself, but when they stooped to killing my Son, that's it." God could have abandoned us at this moment. Or, two, God the Father could have abandoned God the Son, handed him over into our sinful hands. God could have left the Son to hang there as the hapless, helpless victim of our evil.
But these were never real options for God if God were to continue to be the God who is revealed to us in Scripture. God the Father cannot be separated from God the Son. God the Father stays with the Son and in the suffering and horror gets us in the bargain. God the Father stays with us and gets a crucified Son. The unity of the Trinity is maintained—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and in so doing, the Father and the Holy Spirit take on the suffering of the Son. The Father of course could not have abandoned the Son without abandoning who the Father really is. So the Father maintains the life of the Trinity by uniting with us through massive forgiveness, for there is no way for God the Father and God the Holy Spirit to be with God the Son, the Incarnate Word, without being with us murderers of God.
There, in forgiving from the cross, Jesus is only doing what he did throughout his ministry. And the Father, in receiving the plea for forgiveness of us by the Son, is only doing what the Father in the power and resourcefulness of the Holy Spirit constantly does—reach out to sinful humanity. The Son is doing on the cross what the Father and the Holy Spirit have done throughout the history of the world, only intensifying it, focusing it, through the cross.
This is why I said in the beginning that we are witnessing a conversation within the life of the Trinity. Remember the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane? "Father, I don't want to die. Let this cup pass from me" (AP). Jesus was not playacting in that prayer. He did not eagerly seek the cross. And yet, because he was determined completely to love us and have us in the name of the Father, the cross found him, and he willingly took up the cross as the will of his Father. In how many instances in the Old Testament do we hear a similar debate as the Father says, "Israel, I have had it with you. I have tried to make covenant with you and sought earnestly to be your God, but now, with your idolatry and apostasy, I've had it with you. I'm out of here"? Then, just a few verses later, "Oh Ephraim, how can I leave you? How can I let you go?" And the Holy Spirit is so resourceful and relentless in getting intimate with us, yet also so elusive, evasive, free, and beyond our grasp, coming and going among us just when we least want the Holy Spirit to come or to go. Now, here on the cross, in the suffering of the Son, the Father is suffering what that Old Testament hesed, "steadfast love," finally comes to. And the relentlessly communal Holy Spirit is suffering the pain that intimacy with the human race inevitably entails for any God who would come so close to us.
Here on the cross, as Jesus prays, "Father, forgive them," we see that what Christ said in John's Gospel ("I and my Father are one") is true and that, because the Son and the Father are one, if the Son is to love and serve the Father and if the Father is to love and serve the Son, then both will take us in the bargain. And there is no taking murderers like us without a stunning act of divine forgiveness. The Trinity has reached out, drawn in, attached itself to us sinners, and look what it got—a cross. And we sinners have used every means at our disposal—including our religion, our spirituality, our faith—to resist this love, and look what it got us—forgiveness.
That's one of the things Jesus meant when he said, in John's Gospel, that there's no other way to the Father except through him. That is, there is just no way that we'll get to the Father except by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit getting to us through trinitarian forgiveness.
I don't think it's "Father, forgive them because they are not really to be held culpable, for they don't rationally know what they are doing."
I think it's "Father, forgive them, for among other things, they don't know what they're doing." Of course, God will never get us except through forgiveness of our stupidity and cruelty. If God is going to wait until we know the wrong that we do, God will wait forever. If you are awaiting me to know, to admit, to confess my complicity, my sin, you will wait an eternity, and I am not eternal. Only God is that. If God's going to wait to talk with me until I first admit that I'm a sinner, the conversation will never occur. I'll be too defensive, too deceitful in my guilt. I'd rather die.
"Did you conspire to crucify the Son of God?"
"Who, me? Why are you always picking on me? I'm doing the best I can."
So the first thing we hear is, "You are forgiven." Then, "Can we talk?"
My friend, writer Reynolds Price, suffering from a tumor on the spine, in his illness, had a dream. In his dream, Reynolds was standing knee deep in the Jordan River, and there was Jesus, baptizing. Jesus looks at Reynolds and says, "My son, your sins are forgiven."
Reynolds snorts back at Jesus, "Who said I was worried about my sin? I want to be cured!" Jesus looks annoyed and says, "That too."
What an interesting progression here. First, "Father forgive," then second, "They don't know what they're doing." Thank God our relationship with God this day is not predicated on our awareness of what we're doing and who we are and what this all means and what were our motives. Our situation with God is determined by God. Preemptive forgiveness.
Reminds you of all those times when Jesus walked about Galilee on brighter days. He was forever walking up to folk and, without warning, saying to those whom he met, "your sins are forgiven," and "go, sin no more, your sins are forgiven." Almost nobody ever asked him to forgive them. Jesus knew that without forgiveness being the first word there would be no meeting of God and humanity.
There is that sense in which forgiveness precedes repentance. We lack the courage, the sense to confess, without the prior knowledge that our truthfulness and honesty about ourselves will not, by God, destroy us. So before there is truth-telling from the cross, there is forgiveness from the cross. Christians confess our sin not in order to receive forgiveness but rather because we are forgiven. Father forgive, they don't know.
When I taught preaching at a divinity school, I taught my students to be attentive to the very first words that they spoke in a sermon. "Your first words, the first couple of sentences, will set the tone for where you expect to go in the sermon." And the very first words that Jesus speaks are a prayer, "Father, forgive." What does that tell you about where this conversation from the cross is headed?
Excerpted from Thank God It's Friday by William H. Willimon Copyright © 2006 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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