Luke 23: 32-34
Two others, also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 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. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.
Good Friday meditation offered at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Oak Ridge, TN, March 25, 2016
Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.
Henri Nouwen went to St. Petersburg to see Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son. While there, he had a misunderstanding with a museum guard. They had no common language, but eventually it was resolved to their mutual satisfaction and Nouwen says that when he left the gallery several hours later, he looked at the guard and “…saw a man like myself: afraid, but with a great desire to be forgiven.” (The Return of the Prodigal Son. p.11) He continues, “Each of us wants to be forgiven. But even admitting the desire is difficult. It’s easier to talk about the “need” for forgiveness than it is to admit we yearn to kneel before one who embraces us even when we don’t “deserve” – haven’t “earned” – it.”(p. 12)
Who among us doesn’t “need” forgiveness? It’s one thing for Jesus to ask God to forgive “them,” but among us humans, there is no “we” and no “they.” Therefore, if I pray, “Father, forgive them,” I am really praying, “Father, forgive US.” “Forgive ME.” And that’s a hard prayer . But this is Jesus’ prayer, not mine. And Jesus, though one of “us” is also of God.
If we look at the Bible for a moment as a series of variations on the theme of God’s ceaseless call to those beloved – that would be every created being – God consistently reminds us to welcome the stranger and to care for the poor and the oppressed. God never instructs us to calculate their net worth before showing mercy.
Yet instead of welcoming and caring, we judge. We do to others and, frequently, to ourselves, what God does not do to those who seek succor. For me to admit that I long to be welcomed threatens my “objectivity” and the self I project to the world. Rather than make myself vulnerable, I maintain a careful distance. I so want to maintain some control over my spiritual journey that I cannot unbend enough to be open to God or my neighbor. This protects me from unwelcome opportunities. And from – which might be more welcome – friendship, purpose,… forgiveness.
Sometimes we talk of being “co-creators” with God. I’ve never been comfortable with that idea. “Co” implies equal status with the Creator, and that’s a level of responsibility way beyond me. But I do think we’re “sub-creators,” in a relationship similar to that of a sub-contractor to a contractor. We are after all, God’s hands, eyes, and feet in this world. As sub-creators, we work to the Creator’s plan. We have frequent opportunities for originality, but always in a context. Many of us work together on the project; sometimes in concert, sometimes at apparent cross-purposes. Yet we do our best to cooperate, trusting that it will all come ‘round right.
Jesus was crucified to reify the limitlessness of God’s love. You’d think after two millennia we would have caught on. But still, Jesus prays from the cross, “Father, forgive them…” . And here’s the thing: on some deep level, we get it; yet too often we choose to act as if we don’t, preferring our own plans to God’s less comprehensible ones.
So. We judge, we separate, we work at cross-purposes. We award ourselves the status of full partner rather than journeyman. And still we are too afraid to admit our vulnerability, even to ourselves. And still we long for forgiveness. For that strong, warm embrace.
Someone asked retired Bishop John Spong, “How can we forgive our enemies? Should we, even if they have committed atrocities?” He responded:
“Desmond Tutu’s great insight was that there are no conditions on forgiveness. The ‘even if’ part of this question means that the questioner is not talking about forgiveness.” He goes on to remind us that the power of unconditional forgiveness transformed the entire nation of South Africa, “in a way that can only be described as miraculous.”
This reminds me that until God gives up on Creation I certainly cannot; and that humans sometimes do Godly work. When they do, it is awe-inspiring.
No conditions to God’s forgiveness. Not for me. Not for the oppressed. Not for the oppressor. That’s what Jesus prays.
Come. God’s forgiving embrace awaits.
Nouwen, Henri. The Return of the Prodigal Son: a Story of Homecoming. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Circle of Atonement website: https://www.circleofa.org/library/course-meets-world/power-unconditional-forgiveness/