Forgiveness – a footnote

Luke 23:33-43 is a frightening passage for the reader, and a daunting one for the preacher. It was a text I preached on in 2013 and this article is based on that sermon.

Jesus, King of Heaven and Earth has been impaled on a cross, he’s in excruciating pain; but he uses some of his last drops of breath and energy to say a prayer,

but it’s not a prayer for himself – as perhaps you or I might be tempted to say,

but it’s a 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 others preachers sermons. And then it happened, reading the footnotes,  verse 34, footnote ‘e’ to the New Revised Standard Bible: Some manuscripts omit the sentence, “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

Most versions of the bible do include Jesus prayer. But what if the verse was excluded, what an incredible change to the bible, to its meaning, it’s message – quite mind blowing. We know that with the passing of time someone is always looking to update, improve or in some way alter the bible. So where does this divergence come from – why would anyone want the story to finish with 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, the very existence of this powerful prayer of forgiveness?

That’s it – Just cut Jesus’ words out of the Bible? Just remove forgiveness from the story….

What struck me from this footnote was what happens when we remove forgiveness from our stories? And from our life…..

Some of you may know the book ‘Knot of Vipers’ by Mauriac, 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.

That’s an extreme example of what happens when forgiveness is cut out of the story.

I’m sure we all know of homes and families with torn relationships because someone has removed forgiveness from their script, meaningful and loving relationships are all affected when forgiveness is missing from our lives.

If you take away forgiveness from our life’s story it keeps us prisoners of the past, unable to change, unable to move on, unable to grow in our faith and in our life with Jesus.

And I’m not saying we may not have reasons for withholding forgiveness. Jesus certainly would have had his reasons for being tight-lipped, and economical with his forgivenesses —especially as he hung on the cross. Something about nails, something about desperate pain, something about unquenchable thirst, could limit forgiveness by most people to a mere footnote.

Deleting verse 34 from the story and replacing it with silence, replacing it with nothing, did Jesus ever respond to blatant injustice with silence? No, he always responded with forgiveness and love. But are we silent? Are we like that editor of Luke’s Gospel who highlighted that some wanted to exclude forgiveness from the story, perhaps the editor had been wronged, perhaps he didn’t want his Jesus to forgive.

Are we silent when it comes to the 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 Jesus decided not to be silent, up there on the cross with nails in his hands. Jesus might well have said “Forgiveness?  No thanks,”, “I’ll do what most kings do; just die in defiant silence.”

I like to think that as a Christian I am a little bit like Jesus – but the truth for me is that when I’m wronged by others, I could easily get my scissors and just like the editor of Luke I could cut out Jesus’ powerful prayer.

He would then be a lot more like you and me.  But except for one thing. It simply is so like Jesus to forgive.

Some might question Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness from the cross, but it came at the end of an entire life of forgiveness! How can you silence that?

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 centrepiece 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 certain scribes did not want their Jesus to offer forgiveness to everyone. That’s the origin of the footnote – teachers not wanting to share Jesus forgiveness, redemption, and grace.

But beyond that, I wonder if maybe Jesus understood something that we are just getting around to discovering. Forgiveness offers a way out. It 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.

So wherever we have withheld forgiveness, and with whoever we have withheld forgiveness – there we sit in prison. Jesus understood as few do, the power of forgiveness to free others. That’s what it means in Greek—to loose, to free, to cast off, cast away. That’s what a king can do.

There is a story about an immigrant rabbi escaping from Germany to America – “Before coming to America,” the rabbi said, “I had to forgive Adolf Hitler.” Why he was 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, 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 he gets up and ransacks the silver and escapes into the nights darkness.  Next morning, three policeman knock at the door with this ex-convict 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 must have forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks too! They’re worth 200 francs”

The ex-con is humbled by the forgiveness of the bishop.

“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.

The selfless forgiveness that Jesus showed defies our pride and every human instinct for revenge. Forgiveness frees us, and the person we forgive to both begin again. Every act of forgiveness releases you to do Gods will.

One act of forgiveness—even before we repent—can melt our pride and our selfishness.

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 for me and for you, Jesus calls us all to forgive others and to go and preach the gospel of forgiveness.

Allen Creedy

January 2022