A sermon by Canon Anthony Phillips.
Central to Luke’s account of the crucifixion is Jesus prayer, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’ (23:34). Although this prayer is missing from a number of important manuscripts, the majority of scholars accept it as genuine to Luke.
By ‘them’ Jesus could be understood as indicating the Roman soldiers, or even everyone responsible for his execution. But the fact that Luke in his second volume, Acts of the Apostles, makes Peter specifically refer to the ignorance of the Jews in carrying out Jesus’ death (3:17) and puts a very similar prayer into the mouth of the martyr Stephen (7:60), seems to confirm both the authenticity of Jesus’ prayer as part of Luke’s Gospel and the identity of ‘them’ as the Jews. Indeed the absence of the prayer from some texts may well be due to later scribes being unable to stomach the notion that Jews could actually be forgiven for Christ’s death. Christian anti-Semitism has a long history.
But Jesus’ prayer from the cross should not surprise us. For following on his injunction to his disciples to ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matt. 5:44), Jesus told them that they could not ask God to forgive them their offences without having already forgiven any who had injured them (Mt. 6:12-15; 18:18-22 ) – sentiments already expressed by The Jewish writer, Ben Sirach: ‘Forgive your neighbour the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray’ (28:2).
Of course all injuries on whoever inflicted and their consequences remain. They cannot be undone. God himself is not indifferent to them. Indeed sometimes they can be of such a magnitude that they need positively to be the focus of a communal act of remembrance in the hope that such evil may not occur again. In such cases it is not a matter of ‘forgive and forget’ but ‘remember and forgive’.
But that does not mean that they should so freeze us in the past that we cannot enjoy a future freed from their damaging hold on us. For through our forgiveness, we ourselves are enabled to live with our injuries rather than against them, releasing not only those who have injured us but ourselves too from their suffocating grip. Until we can make our Saviour’s words our own, our very understandable hatred of those who have injured us penetrates the very fibre of our being adding to the evil the injury has already caused and dehumanizing us in ways that those who injured us could never have achieved on their own. Hanging on to hatred, willing revenge, demonizing our adversary – such actions damage us far more than those to whom such feelings are directed. Indeed the Greek word for forgiveness (aphesis) means ‘release’. By forgiving we not only give the other the opportunity to obtain release but first release ourselves.
Sometimes it has been argued that repentance must precede forgiveness. But as the Oxford English Dictionary makes plain, forgiveness is a unilateral act of giving up, abandonment of any claim for requital. The attitude of the recipient is immaterial to the act of forgiveness though when appropriated will lead to reconciliation. But reconciliation and forgiveness are two separate issues. One may follow on the other but the two acts should be kept distinct. Forgiveness must reach out to the other before any contrition on their part.
So Jesus’ healing words from the cross are uttered without any precondition. Indeed they would probably have been meaningless to those who crucified him. Whether Roman soldiers or Jewish authorities, they did not recognise that they had committed any offence. But the prayer of forgiveness releases the dying Nazarene todie as he was created to die, at one with his Father and humankind. So for all, even the crucifiers, he made atonement, became for all time the means of God and his people’s mutual unbreakable embrace. They too can now enjoy a freedom of which they could hardly dare to dream.
Forgiveness is not then concerned with justice as the mis-named parable of the prodigal son makes clear ( Lk. 15: 11-32). Long before the younger boy appears in sight, the Father is already primed to forgive him. As soon as he sees his son, he rushes out to meet and embrace him before the child can utter a word of his prepared confession. Then the elder boy, really the focus of the parable, chides his father with the injustice of his generosity to his errant brother. He fails to recognise the nature of love which cannot hold itself back and which epitomises the character of God. As Faber’s hymn puts it:
For the love of God is broader,
Than the measures of man’s mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
But we make his love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify his strictness
With a zeal he will not own.
In his hymn Faber shows that we project onto God our own feelings of anger and want of justice. We hope that God will vindicate us by exercising his wrath against those who have injured us. But God remains compassionate, forgiving, loving: he cannot deny his own nature. As Hosea puts it, ‘For I am God and not man’ (11:9). So Jesus turns our natural instincts on their head by summoning us to love our enemies because God loves them, a lesson that Jonah had to learn. Christian vocation is to be as God is: ‘You, therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Mt. 5:43-48).
It is easy to ridicule this understanding of forgiveness as weak, even foolish. It is not a human instinct but a divine characteristic. Yet as St. Paul commented to the Corinthians, ‘the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men’ (I Cor. 1:25). Some have even argued that it is immoral to forgive too easily. In fact forgiveness is no easy option as history painfully confirms. Individuals and communities find every excuse to avoid its practice. Nor despite the New Testament emphasis are Christians very good at it. But that we fail to live up to our vocation of taking up our cross and following our Lord does not invalidate that calling and all that that entails. Unless we keep forgiveness at the top of our agenda, we neither have any way of dealing with our past nor can provide any hope for the future.
But by embracing unconditional forgiveness, the forgiveness of the cross, we acquire for ourselves a peace, wholeness, at-oneness which transcends all previous pain and puts a closure on a chain of events which if left unresolved can fester on to erupt again bringing yet more discord and agony.
When Jesus summons his disciples to take up his cross and follow, it means that we too must be constantly in that state of having forgiven which God inhabits as seen in the father running out to embrace the wastrel son. This is hugely costly and in its perfection few of us attain it. But it is in knowing our own need for forgiveness that we can best realise forgiveness for others.
Nothing could appear weaker than the naked figure on the cross forgiving his executioners, colluding as it were in his own demise. But it is when we are at our weakest, when any opportunity for covering up our nakedness has been torn away, that men and women can assume their natural strength intended in their creation. In appropriating for ourselves the Saviour’s forgiving cry, we surrender everything on which we might legitimately rely. We recover the glory of our creaturely nakedness.