The First Word: 'Father, forgive them'

Holy Week 2011 Daily Reflection on the Last Words of Christ

Luke 23. 33-35
33When the soldiers came to the place called "The Skull," they nailed Jesus to a cross. They also nailed the two criminals to crosses, one on each side of Jesus.
34-35Jesus said, "Father, forgive these people! They don't know what they're doing."
While the crowd stood there watching Jesus, the soldiers gambled for his clothes. The leaders insulted him by saying, "He saved others. Now he should save himself, if he really is God's chosen Messiah!"

        It seems fitting that Jesus’ words on the Cross begin with forgiveness.  That’s the point of the Cross.  Somehow, Jesus’ death is part of our reconciliation with God and healing from sin.  Quite how that is the case is not part of our concern here.  One can imagine a kaleidoscope of ways in which Jesus’ death reconciles and heals.  As God, Jesus stands between us and judgement and accepts the penalty.  As a human being, Jesus shows the emptiness and futility of earthly violence.  As both divine and human, Jesus opens up a new dawn for relationships of peace.  But, amidst all of these theories, let’s for now hold onto how the First Word of the Cross is a gift in-itself. 
The gift of the First Word is, of course, for-giveness.  But why is it a ‘gift’?  For-giveness is only one gift given from God for us.  Everything that God gives is, in some sense, a gift.  Our creation, our existence, our universe comes from God as a loving gift.  As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.”  (‘God’s Grandeur’)  All evil is a refusal of that gift.  It is you or I standing against the fullness of God being given in the world.  The brokenness of creation, through decay or natural disaster, expresses the depths of our own damage and refusal of God’s gift.  For-giveness, then, is our receiving of re-creation, of a new way to be open and one with what God has to gift.  Jesus proclaims in this First Word God’s eternal purpose to bring us home where we can be fully alive to God’s gifts.
What a strange place, though, for forgiveness to be proclaimed.  Jesus is in agony, freshly nailed to a Cross by the very world he comes to bring home to God.  Yet, perhaps this is strangely the most fitting way and place for God to show the depth and the radical nature of His gift.  Jesus’ prayer that ‘they’ be forgiven is telling.  Surrounded as he is by screams of hatred, Jesus forgives, that is to say gives the gift of peace and wholeness.  And the giving of this gift is universal – ‘forgive them’, ‘forgive these people’.  These ‘people’ are ciphers for all of humanity: Jew and Gentile alike lead Jesus to the Cross. 
The power of the gift extends even further.  ‘Forgive these people!  They don’t know what they’re doing.’  In our law courts, ignorance is normally no defence.  In our churches, we expect people to show some form of contrition before forgiveness is given.  Yet, Jesus’ gift of forgiveness takes no account of a person’s interior reflection or understanding of sin.  Jesus simply asks for God to forgive, to give the gift of friendship, healing, wholeness.  God chooses to wipe away our sins, not because we have some convenient excuse, and not because we have tried hard to make up for them, but because he is a God of amazing grace, with mercies that are new every morning. As the theologian Karl Barth puts it, here, on the Cross, we see God’s “total help over against [our] total guilt.”  (Dogmatics in Outline p.98) That is the Good News, and that is the great gift of God. 
Jesus’ gift of for-giveness seems so radical as to be hard to understand.  I certainly don’t forgive so easily.  Neither do I forget easily.  The poet George Herbert talks about just how radical Jesus’ gift is in a poem entitled ‘The Agonie’.  Herbert begins the poem in this way:
Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staffe to heav’n, and traced fountains:
        But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sinne and Love.

Then, to know what love is, Herbert directs us to the Cross:

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the crosse a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
        If ever he did taste the like.
Love in that liquour sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as bloud; but I, as wine.

I suspect that Herbert is right.  The only way we can truly know and express the radical nature of Jesus’ gift of forgiveness is to experience it.  The words and thoughts of philosophy, powerful as they are, can say nothing in comparison to Jesus’ love, given in communion.  And as we receive the bread and wine, we become what we eat, as Saint Augustine puts it.  In short, we become like Jesus, like his gift of forgiveness in this First Word.

Let us pray:

Merciful Lord,
you know our struggle to follow you:
where sin hurts our lives
and overshadows our hearts,
turn us back to you
and your gift of forgiveness again.  Amen.