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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Good Friday 04/14/2017

If you looked this text up in your Bible, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” if you looked it up you would probably find that either it’s set off in brackets or that there’s a footnote attached to it.  I have five different versions of the Bible up there in my office including the Greek New Testament and in all them this phrase from Luke 23:34 is set apart in some fashion.  I’d never noticed it before, or if I did I never paid any attention to it, but what that means is that this part of the verse is missing from some of the most important early manuscripts of the New Testament.  What that means is that it could be a phrase that was added later making it less authentic at least in the eyes of some.  Supporting the later addition hypothesis is the fact that these words do appear only in Luke and the narrative does read perfectly well without them.

For New Testament scholars anyway, that raises the question of whether or not Jesus really said this.  Should this be a Six Last Words service instead of a Seven Last Words service meaning that I could sit down right now?  Or, did Jesus say it, but the early church found it too radical even for Jesus so some early scribes left it out feeling like some things just can’t be forgiven, only to have the matter reconsidered at some later point when the words were put back in, perhaps in light of the rest of Jesus’ teaching?  After all, “Father forgive them” does seem consistent with Jesus’ ethic of “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  One can easily imagine Jesus saying, “Father forgive them.”

We can’t really answer these textual questions and it perhaps doesn’t really matter anyway.  The verse is there and a best guess would be that whatever the history behind it, the bottom line is that the early church ultimately couldn’t imagine the narrative without “Father forgive them.”  The early church couldn’t imagine it and neither can we as part of the present day church because we need this radical word of forgiveness.  It is true that the narrative would still make perfect sense without this phrase, but…the meaning of the narrative and what it says to us would change quite drastically, the way we view Jesus would change quite drastically.

“Father forgive them” becomes even more significant when you look at where it’s placed.  It is the first word we consider in this service; that doesn’t mean it’s more important than the other six, but being first should count for something.  According to Luke’s Passion story, it’s also the first thing Jesus says when he arrives at the place of crucifixion.  In both cases, liturgically and biblically, that placement serves to frame this whole Good Friday event in a particular way. It starts with forgiveness and not only that, it’s forgiveness that is absolutely undeserved. 

It’s forgiveness for the religious and political authorities that put Jesus on trial and convicted him, sentencing him to death, it’s forgiveness for the crowds who cheered them on shouting “Crucify him!” and it’s forgiveness for those who actually carry out the execution.  It’s forgiveness for those who have not shown repentance or remorse.  What it is, is it’s Jesus being Jesus.  It’s Jesus making known what we need to know which is that the characteristic that perhaps best defines him is forgiveness even when, especially when, we don’t deserve it.

We do see a Jesus defined by forgiveness here, but note that with this statement he doesn’t say to those aligned against him, “I forgive you,” instead it’s a prayer as he says “Father, forgive them.”  To us that perhaps doesn’t seem like a big deal.  Our Trinitarian theology understands Jesus to be equal to God so for us whether Jesus says “I forgive” or if he prays “Father forgive” it pretty much means the same thing.  For those who heard him first hand however, and for the early church that formed in the years immediately after these events, there was no Trinitarian theology yet.  Phrasing it as “Father, forgive them,” does make a difference as he reminds them that the kind of forgiveness he is calling for is characteristic of the Lord, the God of the Old Testament, the God that many of them claimed to worship. 

The God that Jesus appeals to is portrayed and experienced in a variety of ways in the Old Testament.  But Jesus knows this God and he knows that the heart of this God, the heart of the Father is a forgiving heart.  The prayer book for the people of Israel was the Psalms and God is imagined in different ways there too, but what they always come back to is an image like that of Psalm 103:  “Do not forget all his benefits—who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live.”

Forgives, heals, redeems, crowns, satisfies; it’s a list of God’s characteristic actions.  It’s a list that we need to know and trust in and it starts with forgiveness.  Having said this, it’s almost as if the psalmist grows in confidence going on to say, “He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.  He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities…as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.  As a father has compassion for his children so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.”

It’s Good Friday, the most somber day of the church year, and some of today’s words, words like “forsaken” and “thirst” will no doubt evoke that somberness; but the first word of the day is about forgiveness, setting a tone that can carry us through what is to come.  We can hang on to the words of the psalmist that tell us that God does not stay angry, God doesn’t hold grudges, God doesn’t control a great scoreboard in the sky that declares us losers.  Instead, God, Father as Jesus calls him, is about the work of compassion and forgiveness. 

And, according to the psalmist of Psalm 103, God’s forgiveness and compassion comes with full knowledge of who we are.  We get echoes of Ash Wednesday with the verse, “For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.”   Dust; here today, gone tomorrow but God’s steadfast love is from everlasting to everlasting.

With this first word then, Jesus places himself in sharp contrast to the people and forces that surround him.  They are about blood thirsty, cynical, mob violence, getting pleasure out of someone else’s misfortune.  He is about the Father’s agenda of healing and redemption and forgiveness.  For Jesus, love wins; the drama of this day is transformed by his prayer for forgiveness for his accusers.

Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.  In reality, they perhaps did know what they were doing, but for Jesus, it didn’t matter.  He was still about forgiveness.  On Friday, there’s no immediate answer to this prayer, no voice from heaven confirming Jesus’ request, but isn’t that most often the way with prayer?  The answer doesn’t really come until Easter morning with the event that marks the decisive moment in history when hatred and vengeance, even death itself is defeated.  When we proclaim that Christ is Risen, He is Risen Indeed,” it’s a proclamation that includes forgiveness as the expected ways of the world that say you get what you deserve are in fact turned upside down.

It is appropriate that today’s first word is about forgiveness because “Father forgive them” includes us as well.  Our lives are changed by these words, the world is changed by these words.  They are the words we need to hear not just today, but every day.

Heavenly Father, we give you thanks for forgiveness, forgiveness that we in no way deserve but which we receive strictly by your grace and love for us.  In his darkest moment Jesus still offered forgiveness.  In our own lives, help us to make his words, our words as his representatives and followers.  In his name we pray.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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