Christ the King Sunday (November 21, 2010)

Father, Forgive Them

Lessons: Jeremiah 23:1-6 Psalm 46 (10) Colossians 1:11-20 St. Luke 23:33-43

Semicontinuous Series: Jeremiah 23:1-6 St. Luke 1:68-79 (69)

Prayer of the Day: O God, our true life, to serve you is freedom, and to know you is unending joy.  We worship you, we glorify you, we give thanks to you for your great glory.  Abide with us, reign in us, and make this world into a fit habitation for your divine majesty, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Text

23:33 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. [ 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

St. Luke 23:33-43. New Revised Version Bible ©1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

“Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” There is some contention within circles of Biblical scholarship as to whether or not this quote from Jesus was in the original copy of St. Luke’s Gospel. We don’t have the original manuscript, of course; only old hand-written copies. Some of these old copies include the first half of verse 34 (for instance: the codex Sinaiticus from the 4th century, and the codex Alexandrinus from the 5th century), but certain others exclude it (for instance: a copy of Luke & John that may date as early as the late 2nd century, and the 4th century Vaticanus). Biblical scholars today are left to debate whether it is more likely that a scribe might have added these words to St. Luke’s original, or deleted them from it. I find that to be a fascinating question. St. Luke dedicated his writing to an unknown man named Theophilus (Luke 1:3 and Acts 1:1) whom many suspect was a Roman official. It may have made sense for St. Luke, who wrote near the end of the first century, to remember these words of Jesus – it certainly would have been moving for a Roman official to read that even as he was being killed, Jesus prayed that his Roman tormentors might be forgiven. But by the time any of these existing manuscripts were written, the Roman Empire had been persecuting and killing Christians for years. It isn’t hard to imagine a scribe who was so incensed at the Roman Empire’s treatment of Christians that he (intentionally or unintentionally) left out this line. Radical forgiveness lies at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. Whether he is forgiving the sadistic Roman guards who nailed him to the tree, or forgiving the criminal who hung dying beside him, Jesus reaches out in forgiveness where others might refuse to do so. The forgiveness he offered was a radical forgiveness – rooted in the same grace of God that caused him to welcome tax collectors and sinners into his inner circle, forgive the adulteress, reach out to those his own religious tradition considered unclean, and include in the very first Holy Communion the one who would betray him, the one who would deny him, and the ten who would run and hide during his darkest hour of need. Radical forgiveness lies at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, but like that (imaginary) 4th century scribe, we find ourselves reluctant to be as forgiving as he was. I have often studied this passage with teenagers. It is not unusual at all for them to react against these words of Jesus, questioning whether or not the worst among us can actually be forgiven. In their unabashedly honest manner, they often ask the questions that the rest of us only reluctantly consider: What about Joseph Stalin? What about Adolph Hitler? What about Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein? Is it conceivable that these notorious architects of torture and murder might also turn to God and receive forgiveness? This week’s passage suggests that the answer is yes. There are no limits on whom or what God will forgive. That may be disturbing news when we think of the horrors that some have visited on our brothers and sisters in this vast human family. But it is comforting news when we realize that we, too, are recipients of the same radical gift of forgiveness from God. If Stalin, Hitler, Bin Laden and Hussein are beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness, then I might be too. But if God could love the likes of them, then I am able to believe that God can love the likes of me too. And that, friends, is the best news there is. Amen. David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week's Gospel

  1. Why did Jesus forgive the criminal who was being crucified with him? (Or for that matter: why might he have prayed for the forgiveness of his Roman torturers?)
  2. How might first century readers have reacted to this forgiveness? What about fourth century readers?
  3. What is the central theme of Jesus’ ministry in St. Luke’s Gospel?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. If someone as sinful as a soldier who killed Jesus could be forgiven, where do I stand?
  2. Is there any sin I might commit, that God would refuse to forgive?
  3. Is there anyone whose sin I am reluctant to want forgiven? Or has God’s forgiveness of me so changed my heart that I can’t begin to imagine that possibility?