Never Said A Mumblin' Word
a homily based on Luke 23:33-43
by Rev. Thomas Hall
assignments were being handed out at a recent ministerium, I was told to preach Luke
23:33-43. What a momentous passage. Jesus, King of another kingdom, has been
impaled on a cross and is certainly feeling excruciating pain; yet he utters an absolutely
kingly prayer: Father, forgive them for they dont know what they are
So I went
right to work doing the usual preachers gymnastics with the Biblesearching,
pondering, and reading commentaries. And then it happened right in the middle of
verse 34. Footnote e. New Revised Standard Bible:
Other ancient authorities lack the sentence, Then Jesus said, Father,
forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. To be
honest, other manuscripts do include the prayer. But still. On Christ
the King Sunday. When we are supposed to celebrate spiritual authoritys
triumph over earthly power and might.
Always some textual critic in the crowd to go and mess with our Bibles. So
thats it? Jesus crucified with a bunch of thugs while the soldiers throw dice
to get the last of his earthly belongings? Why couldnt the footnote been
about some meaningless detail about the thieves? Why did it have to question the
authenticity of this powerful prayer of forgiveness? Just cut Jesus
famous words out of the Bible? Isnt that the kind of kingship Jesus
What happens when we omit forgiveness from our own stories?
In the book Knot of Vipers, an old man spends his last decades sleeping down the hall from
his wife. A rift had opened thirty years before over whether the husband showed
enough concern when their five-year-old daughter became ill. Now, neither husband
nor wife is willing to take the first step. Every night he waits for her to approach
him, but she never appears. And every night she lies awake just waiting for
him to approach her, but he never does.
dont have to go to such extremes when forgiveness is withheld, of course.
There are a lot of houses perfectly constructed, beautiful hallways and bedrooms with torn
relationships because someone has cut the words forgiveness from their
script. Such happens in small ways to all of us when forgiveness is missing from the
text of our lives. It keeps us prisoners of the past, unable to change.
we dont have our reasons for withholding forgiveness. Jesus certainly would
have had his reasons for being tight-lipped about the subjectespecially as he hung
on the cross. Something about two pieces of rough steel slammed through one of the
most tender parts of the body that can reduce forgiveness to a footnote. Blatant
injustice can replace our verse thirty-fours with silence too.
his silence we could add our own silence when it comes time to forgive:
Its his fault. Shell never change if I keep forgiving
her. Im the one that got wronged; Im the victim
here. Why should I forgive? They arent even sorry.
So we can understand why maybe Jesus just decided up there on the cross with nails in his
hands not to say a mumblin word. Forgiveness? No thanks,
Jesus might well have said, I think Ill do what most kings do; just withhold
absolving; just die in defiant silence.
Looking at my own inclination toward ungrace and silence when Im wronged by others,
I could easily get my scissors out and cut Jesus powerful prayer out of the
text. Hed then be a lot more like you and me. Except for one
thing. It simply is so Jesus to forgive. Critics might question Jesus
prayer of forgiveness from the cross, but how can we silence an entire life of
forgiveness? To the paralytic Jesus says, Friend, your sins are forgiven
you. To a woman cowered and wounded, Jesus says, Woman, your sins are
forgiven. Turning to the disciples one day, Jesus gives themand
usthe model prayer that has as its centerpiece these words, forgive us our
trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
You know what I think really happened on the cross? Because Jesus is the king
of a better kingdom than well ever realize down here, he was simply doing what he
had always doneoffering absolution. Later, those words were removed from some
Bibles because some scribes did not want their Jesus to offer forgiveness to
everyone. Kind of that ungrace thing again.
But beyond that, I wonder if maybe Jesus understood something that we are just getting
around to discovering. Forgiveness offers a way out. Doesnt settle the
issues of blame, but it allows the relationship to start over again.
From the cross, Jesus prayed to forgive the soldiers, the people, the leaders, the
criminals, you and me, because it offered us a way out of our own prison camps. For
wherever and to whomever we have withheld forgiveness, there we sit in prison. Jesus
understood as few do, the power of forgiveness to free others. Thats what the
Greek word meansto loose, to free, to cast off, cast away. Thats
what a king can do.
Philip Yancy tells of a conversation that he once had with an immigrant rabbi.
Before coming to America, the rabbi said, I had to forgive Adolf
Hitler. Why? Yancy asked. I did not want to bring Hitler
inside me to my new country.
The rabbi got it right.
In Victor Hugos Les Miserables, Jean Valjean has served nineteen long years for the
crime of stealing bread. In prison he becomes a hardened convict. No one can
beat him up, no one can break his will. Finally out of jail, he has to carry a
convict card and so no innkeeper will lodge him. He finally gains shelter from a
kindly old bishop.
That night ex-con Jean Valjean, gets up and ransacks the family silver closet and creeps
off into the darkness. Next morning, three policeman knock at the door with this
ex-con and the stolen silver. No doubt about it, this time hell do life.
So here you are! the Bishop says to Valjean. Im delighted
youve returned! You forgot that I gave you the candlesticks too!
Theyre worth 200 francs. Did you forget them?
The ex-con is scandalized by forgiveness.
Oh no, officers. This mans no criminal, the Bishop laughs,
hes my guest. But no sooner have the police left than the old
bishop leans up and whispers in the ex-cons ear, promise me that youll
use the money to make yourself into an honest man. Forgiveness frees Valjean
to become a new man.
Forgiveness is the quality of divine kingship that defies every human instinct for revenge
and frees us to begin again. One act of forgiveness pays forward through our lives
one forgiving act after another. One naked encounter with forgivenesseven
before we repentcan melt the hardness.
Did Jesus say, Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are
doing? Absolutely, incontestably, undeniably YES! His whole kingly life
was one long prayer of forgiveness. So you too, go and preach the gospel of