Sometimes when we reread a Scripture passage and think about it and do some research on it, we get some good ideas for a homily. (Sometimes not, depending on the passage!) So this week, on this Feast of Christ the King, I did what I usually do: I checked my sources and read a couple commentaries. What I learned reading the footnote in the New Revised Standard Bible gave me pause. In reference to verse 34, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”, the note said, “Some ancient authorities lack this sentence.” What?! You mean to say that there are versions of Luke’s Gospel that are missing this key verse?
Just when I think I have a good idea for a homily, some smarty pants has to throw in a random footnote that undermines my thesis. So, is that really how Luke wanted the story to end? Jesus is crucified with a couple of gangsters and the soldiers throw dice to claim his clothes? 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, a prayer I myself have tried to pray in some pretty trying times in my own life? Aren’t these words just the sort of kingship that Jesus is trying to embrace and establish on earth?
The more I thought about this, the more I came to focus on the missing words of forgiveness. Don’t I often have missing words of forgiveness in my own life? Aren’t there some unpleasant consequences when I omit prayers of forgiveness from my own circumstances?
We can all think of times when we have withheld forgiveness from someone. Sometimes we wait and wait and wait for the other person to make the first move. We are unwilling to do so ourselves. Even in marriages and close relationships love can deteriorate when the words of forgiveness are lacking. We can all think of relationships that on the surface seemed to have everything going for them in a material sense, but a lack of forgiveness undermined everything. It’s not always that dramatic, however, and there are a million ways in which little grudges that we carry with us keep us imprisoned in the past, unable to change. Unwilling to change because, we reason, we have perfectly good reasons for withholding our forgiveness.
Jesus certainly had his own perfectly good reasons for withholding his own forgiveness as he hung on the cross, slowly asphyxiating. The injustice of his trial, the abandonment by his closest friends, the unspeakable pain of his torture and impending death certainly could have reduced his level of forgiveness to a mere footnote.
And to his silence we could very well add our own silence when it comes to forgiving those who hurt us: “It was his fault!” “She’ll never change if I keep forgiving her.” “I’m the one who’s the victim here!” “Why should I forgivethem?? They aren’t even sorry.”
Looking at my own inclination toward rejecting grace and holding a hurt silence when I’m wronged by others, I can understand why maybe we should cut out Jesus’ powerful prayer from the text. He would be more like me, and more importantly, I would be more like him. I’d feel a whole lot better about choices I’ve made in the past! This all makes a lot of sense until I remember that Jesus’ whole life was about forgiveness. We may have some scripture scholars who question the line in this reading from Luke, but it’s fairly impossible to silence Jesus’ whole life of forgiveness. “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” “Woman, your sins are forgiven.” “…forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
It seems much more likely to me that Jesus did on the cross what he had always done. He offered forgiveness. Maybe some later scribes and copyists removed the line from their version of the story because they themselves were uncomfortable with a Jesus who offered forgiveness to everyone. Maybe they themselves had trouble accepting the idea of grace, free and available for all.
But beyond that, Jesus understood something that we are just getting around to discovering. Forgiveness offers a way out. It offers a 3rd path forward, straddling the divide between violent retribution, on the one hand, and docile acceptance of victimhood on the other. Forgiveness doesn’t address issues of blame, to be sure, but it does allow relationships a fresh start.
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 prisons. Whenever and wherever we have withheld forgiveness, we have placed ourselves in prison. Jesus understood that the power of forgiveness has more to do with setting the forgiver free than anything else. That’s what the word means in Greek: to loose, to free, to cast off, or cast away. That’s what kind of a King he is.
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, and the rabbi replied, “Because I did not want to bring Hitler inside me to my new country.”
In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Jean Valjean serves nineteen long years for the crime of stealing bread. While imprisoned, he becomes a hardened criminal: no one can dominate him physically, no one can break his iron will. Finally out of jail, he has to carry a convict card and so no innkeeper will allow him lodging. He finally finds shelter in the home of a kindly old bishop.
That night the ex-con gets up and ransacks the house until he locates the family silver, and makes off with it. The next morning, three policeman knock arrive at the bishop’s house with both the ex-con and the stolen silver. This additional offense will land him in prison for the rest of his 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 bishop explains to the police that Jean is no criminal at all, just a guest. And when the police leave, the old bishop leans toward Jean Valjean and whispers, “Promise me that you’ll use the money to make yourself into an honest man.”
The hardened ex-con is caught off guard by a forgiveness that enables him to become the man he was always meant to be.
Forgiveness is the quality of divinity that defies every human instinct for revenge and frees us to begin again. One act of forgiveness allows us to pay it forward through difficult times now and in the future. In her book, A Return to Love, Marianne Williamson underscores the need for us to recognize that we always have a choice when it comes to forgiveness. If we say we won’t be able to forgive someone for 30 years, it will take 30 years. If we say it will take us weeks to forgive someone, it will take weeks. And if we decide that we will forgive right here and now, that forgiveness happens here and now. The hardness of heart, the baggage, the less than kingly attitudes that we carry within us are all melted before the presence of forgiveness.
The Feast of Christ the King began in 1925 in reaction to the destruction that followed World War I and the economic boom that for the first time in history had huge numbers of people focused on acquiring wealth and living the good life. Pope Pius XI instituted this feast to remind the world that we serve only one Lord, one Teacher, one King. Despite the fact that we no longer look to monarchical forms of government in our political world, we can still affirm that in God’s Reign, Jesus is still the King. Did Jesus say, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing?” Absolutely. His entire life was one long prayer of forgiveness, and his example still stands as an example for all of earth’s kingdoms to emulate. The past century has seen more violence and destruction than any of the preceding centuries, and all because we have not followed the example of Jesus. With Jesus, our King, we surrender our own need to control and manipulate, and we embrace forgiveness as one of the marks of a true follower of Jesus the Christ.