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Never Said A Mumblin' Word
a homily based on Luke 23:33-43
by Rev. Thomas Hall

When 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 don’t know what they are doing.”  

So I went right to work doing the usual preacher’s gymnastics with the Bible—searching, 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 authority’s triumph over earthly power and might.

            Always some textual critic in the crowd to go and mess with our Bibles.  So that’s it?  Jesus crucified with a bunch of thugs while the soldiers throw dice to get the last of his earthly belongings?   Why couldn’t 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?   Isn’t that the kind of kingship Jesus embraced? 

            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.   

We don’t 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. 

Not that we don’t have our reasons for withholding forgiveness.  Jesus certainly would have had his reasons for being tight-lipped about the subject—especially 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.

And to his silence we could add our own silence when it comes time to forgive:  “It’s his fault.”  “She’ll never change if I keep forgiving her.”  “I’m the one that got wronged; I’m the victim here.”  “Why should I forgive?  They aren’t 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 I’ll do what most kings do; just withhold absolving; just die in defiant silence.”

            Looking at my own inclination toward ungrace and silence when I’m wronged by others, I could easily get my scissors out and cut Jesus’ powerful prayer out of the text.  He’d 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 them—and us—the 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 we’ll ever realize down here, he was simply doing what he had always done—offering 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.  Doesn’t 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.  That’s what the Greek word means—to loose, to free, to cast off, cast away.   That’s 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 Hugo’s 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 he’ll do life.

            “So here you are!” the Bishop says to Valjean.  “I’m delighted you’ve returned!  You forgot that I gave you the candlesticks too!  They’re worth 200 francs.  Did you forget them?”

            The ex-con is scandalized by forgiveness. 

            “Oh no, officers.  This man’s no criminal,” the Bishop laughs, “he’s my guest.”  But no sooner have the police left than the old bishop leans up and whispers in the ex-con’s ear, “promise me that you’ll 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 forgiveness—even before we repent—can 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 forgiveness.   Amen.