April 14, 2019

Palm Sunday C

Forgive Them 




“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

Only in Luke’s passion account do we find this word of the seven last words of Jesus spoken from the cross. It is a most remarkable word.  In fact, it may be the most powerful and transformative word he ever spoke. And the really amazing thing about this statement is that it is a prayer. Abba, “Father.” The first word uttered by Jesus on the cross is a prayer: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

Obviously, to pray in a time of great  suffering and tribulation is not all that surprising. Turning to prayer in a desperate and terrifying time seems quite natural and instinctive. When the ground gives way beneath our feet, when some dire tragedy strikes us, when we feel lashed by one of life’s bitter storms, it seems quite natural to cry out to God. In the midst of tragedy, from a place of pain, and in the midst of despair, we seem to instinctively cry out: “O God, Dear Lord, Heavenly Father, have mercy upon us.”

But when we pray under such dire circumstances, it is almost always for ourselves.  Is it not? When we find ourselves in the midst of pain and tragedy and torment, we tend to cry out, “O, Lord, help me in my distress.” “O, God, save me from my struggles.” “Dear Lord, rescue me from my tribulations.”

What surprises us about the prayer of Jesus on the cross is that He does not pray for Himself.  What could be more painful than hanging in crucifixion as an object of derision and shame? Remarkably Jesus does not ask for his own deliverance.

He is taunted by others to save himself, who scoff at him and say, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah, the chosen one.” But that is not what Jesus prays for. He does not even pray for his family or his friends who will be left behind.

Rather, the first word that Jesus utters upon the cross is a prayer for the people who are putting him to death. The first people who come to mind, who are lifted up in prayer, are His executioners. Not himself. Not his family and not his friends. But his enemies are first and foremost in his heart and prayer. And it almost goes without saying that His prayer is not a prayer asking for God’s vengeance upon them, but rather a prayer asking God to forgive them.

A natural human response might have been to pray for the destruction of his enemies. The tradition of His people is replete with cries to God to destroy the enemies of God’s people.   But the first words Jesus utters are a prayer for the forgiveness of the soldiers who paraded him through the city streets and who nailed him to the cross.  They are a prayer for the jeering and mocking crowd that cried out, “Crucify Him. Crucify Him.”  They are a prayer for the unrepentant thief who had zero appreciation of the stark contrast between his own guilt and the absolute innocence of the One who hung beside him.  With his arms stretched out upon the hard wood of the cross, high above the murderous hands of the all these enemies who had crucified him, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”                           

And with this word, with this prayer, everything changes.  The meaning of justice is upended and is radically altered. Yes, this may be the most revolutionary and transformative word ever spoken in human history. “Forgive my enemies, for they know not what they do.” With this prayer, Jesus takes all of the hatred and all of the violence and all of the vengeance of the world and says, “Enough.”

Enough. We’ve had enough of the spiral of violence and counter-violence that just leads to more of the same. It has to end somewhere. Enough.

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

With this word, with this prayer, Jesus shatters the glamour of violence that blinds us in this world, and sets in its place a vision of reconciliation, restoration and peace. We remember that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said to his disciples, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

What Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount, he practiced on the Mount of Calvary. On the cross, Jesus prays for his enemies, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” and everything changes.

Jesus of Nazareth lived and died in the real world, and it was a world saturated and captivated by hatred and violence. His world was so much like the world we inhabit. In this first word from the cross, in this prayer, Jesus reveals God’s own costly love for the world, mediating God’s forgiveness and friendship even in the midst of our violence. In this prayer from the cross, Jesus takes all of it upon himself, all of the hatred and all of the violence of the world, and he says “no more.”                                         

No more. The deadly cycle of violence and counter-violence is broken, and begins to yield to a new world of compassion and solidarity and reconciliation and restoration. On the cross, we see God’s costly gift of love in the person of Jesus, and in the prayer of Jesus for the transformation of the whole world.      

In this prayer, we see the truth of God’s love; the truth that: “God’s compassion is greater than the murderous passions of our world, that God’s glory can and does shine even in the deepest night of human savagery; that God’s forgiving love is greater than our often paralyzing awareness of guilt, that God’s way of life is greater than our way of death.”  

In this prayer, in this word spoken from the cross, Jesus opens up for us, even in the midst of our broken and violent world, a new future of reconciliation, restoration and peace.

The first word Jesus utters upon the cross are the prayer: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” And with this prayer, everything changes.

And so today in solidarity with our crucified Lord, in solidarity with all those immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, in solidarity with all those marginalized because of their difference or poverty, in solidarity with all those with whom our crucified Lord Himself identifies, dare we utter the same prayer,  “Father forgive Donald; forgive the architects and henchmen of inhumanity; forgive the advisors, the agents and foot soldiers of cruelty; forgive the wealthy and the powerful; forgive the active and passive cooperators in human exploitation and degradation; forgive the racists, the fascists, anti-Semites, the uber-nationalists, the militarists.  Forgive, Father, them for they know not what they do.”   For how can they possibly know what they are doing and do what they are doing?  How can they know that in crucifying the little ones, they are crucifying the Son of God, and do what they are doing?

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna

April 14, 2019