William Loader, a New Testament Professor from Australia imagines a war crimes tribunal in which those accused of the murder of Jesus of Nazareth are brought to trial. After hearing arguments the tribunal ends like this:
The judge stood to his feet, looking left and right, then turning to the accused, he said: ‘Your sentence is to hear the story again and again every year, until you recognize your part in the drama, see yourselves in the scene.’…‘Take them away,’ he said. ‘Place them in the garden beyond the flaming sword and let the story begin afresh.’
And so we hear this story again…this time according to the Gospel of Luke. In this depiction, Jesus is accompanied to the Place of the Skull by a strange entourage.
• Simon of Cyrene – the one who was “seized” on his way into Jerusalem and forced to carry Jesus’ cross.
• The lamenting women…women from Jesus’ faith tradition who stayed with him.
• Two other condemned men
• The soldiers who nail him to the cross and mock him while they torture him.
• And Jesus.
This is a martyr story. You can tell by the characteristic marks of a martyr story:
• The person being killed is innocent.
• Martyrs are usually tortured to death
• They do not cry out in pain. They go calmly.
• And they never die before they speak words worth remembering.
Pay close attention to the words that Jesus spoke that day.
According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus doesn’t feel abandoned by God. He doesn’t ask God, “Why?” He tells the lamenting women not to weep for him but for themselves. He promises one of the condemned men that he will see him that day in paradise. After they nail him to the cross and lift up his beaten and tattered body on that hill called The Skull, Jesus says, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.”
I think these words of Jesus are the most beautiful, radical and haunting words in the whole New Testament. “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” Imagine saying that that as you looked out over the people standing there at your crucifixion.
If you could read Greek you would know that Jesus didn’t just say this once. In fact, the actual translation is “Jesus was saying.” It was like a mantra. It is a repeated prayer. “Father, forgive for they don’t know what they are doing. Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing. Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Jesus is asking God to forgive the very same people who have injured him. Just who is talking about? Who can he see from this horrid spot on a cross at the top of the hill?
He can see them all. He can see the Roman soldiers at the very foot of the cross…the ones who are doing Rome’s bidding. He can see the Roman Centurion in charge of these low-level soldiers…the one who in a few short verses will say, “Surely this man was innocent.”
He can see the religious leaders who came along to make sure the dirty deed was done. The one’s whose job it was to keep their people off crosses.
I wonder if Jesus could see his family, friends and disciples from up there. Luke doesn’t speak about them. They must have been way out on the outskirts of the crowd. After all, if they stood too close they were in danger of being recognized, just like Peter had been recognized the night before when he denied knowing Jesus. They probably rationalized their lack of action. “This situation is beyond hope. There is nothing we can do. Standing any closer won’t save Jesus from this horrible death. It will just put us in danger.” They are so far back that they can’t hear Jesus’ repeated prayer: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” I think it would have broken their hearts.
There are a whole host of people Jesus could have been asking God to forgive. It took quite a few people to get Jesus nailed to this cross and another group of people who aren’t stopping it. Who was really at fault? Christians have been asking this question for a long time and we have an ugly history of answering it with: “It was the Jews.” After all, it is always easier to name some other group as guilty. As long as Jesus was asking God to forgive some other group of people, then we are not implicated.
But Martin Niemoller can tell you it doesn’t work like that. Niemoller was a German Lutheran pastor in the 1930s, who was a national conservative and initially supported Adolf Hitler. But eventually he stood up and vehemently opposed the Nazis’ control of state churches. For his opposition he was placed in a concentration camp where he spent eight years of his life. The death gallows were right outside his window. When he was released he wrote much about his confinement. He said he was grateful he was not released sooner because it took him towards the end of those eight years to understand Jesus’ simple prayer, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” He wrote: “It took ma a long time to learn that God is not the God of my enemies. In fact, God is not even the enemy of God’s enemies.”
You may think you have never heard of Niemoller, but he is the one who penned these words:
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
Who was Jesus talking about when he looked out over that crowd and repeated his prayer over and over again, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing”? I think he was talking about me. He was talking about you. He was talking about us. All of us who crucify him over and over again by our action and inaction. By our need to stand a safe distance away. By our collusion and contempt. By our scapegoating and our finger pointing. By our need for revenge and our failure to see….our own failures.
Jesus saw us, from that high hill….us…not our failures…but our hearts and prayed, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.”
We are the ones sentenced to hear this story over and over again until we recognize what part we play in this oft-repeated drama. Here we are, at a time when Muslims and refugees and immigrants have been named as our enemies. Will we join those that harm them? Will we stand with the crowds that yell, “Get out of my country?” Will we say, “Normally, I wouldn’t be part of this kind of thing but there is only so much room for people here and so for the good of the empire, you have to go.” Or will we stand on the outskirts not wanting to get involved ….afraid to get involved…too busy to get involved?
After the war, Niemoller, along with others, initiated the Stuttgard Declaration of Guilt which says this:
Through us infinite wrong was brought over many peoples and countries…we accuse ourselves for not standing to our beliefs more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously, and for not loving more ardently.
This process of being able to recognize and lament the part we play seems to be such a long process. It is so hard for us to name our own participation. But this is our opportunity to get it right. To stand up for Jesus and his message of courage and love. Thank God Jesus sees us and prays for us, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” The most beautiful words in the New Testament.
If we don’t recognize ourselves in the story this year, I’ll met you back here in 2018 – destined to hear this story again until we understand the part we play. Amen.