Father Forgive: a Lenten Meditation

Ceramic Bust from GettyOne time, Jesus was invited to have a meal at the home of Simon, a Pharisee. Jesus accepted the invitation even though he knew that Simon was more critic than friend, and that his every action and word would be monitored closely. While there, a woman boldly entered Simon’s house and came to Jesus. The woman was a person of very bad reputation, maybe a prostitute. Some think it might have been Mary Magdalene. It was a very emotional time for this woman. She had brought some very expensive, perfumed lotion in a priceless alabaster jar, a family heirloom and treasure. She intended to honor Jesus by anointing him with this lotion. She was surprised, though, to find that Jesus’ feet were dirty. Simon, the host, had not even provided clean water and a towel for his guest to wash and dry his sandaled feet. The woman was unprepared for this, but her deep emotion came to her rescue, for her eyes filled with tears at this shabby treatment of her Master combined with her great love for her. Her tears dropped on his feet, and she used her long hair as a towel to dry them. Then she rubbed on her precious lotion. Everyone watching this was scandalized. They were offended by the silent rebuke of the ungracious host. They were shocked that a religious teacher like Jesus would let this prostitute even touch him.

Then Jesus did a most audacious thing. He chastised Simon for his lack of hospitality. He saw far beyond the woman’s sordid reputation and into her heart. He knew that she was deeply ashamed of her sin, that she was reaching out to God through Jesus. And he said, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

And so it went throughout his ministry. Jesus prodded his disciples and the crowds to be forgiving. He taught: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37)

The word translated “forgive” or “forgiveness” is not indicative of a long process. Its base meaning is “release.” In classical Greek, this word was used for the act of “releasing an arrow.” Think of that! When an arrow is released, it is gone! Vamoose! Wiedersehen! Zip! Zoom! Now you see it, now you don’t! Gone and quickly far away. Forgiveness does not happen by accident or casually. It is a conscience decision. It goes against our natural instincts. We want to hold onto grudges, to enjoy playing the victim.

The second statement of Jesus from the cross is:

Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.
Luke 23:34

There are two parts to this that strike home with me.

First, Jesus’ defense of his executioners. Even in the midst of monumental suffering, Jesus thinks of others. He is concerned for the souls of the hardened men who have brutalized him and nailed him to a cross. He cares about the souls of the crowd who mock him and makes sport of his dying. He even has compassion on the ruthless leaders, Caiaphas and his cronies, who orchestrated his arrest and condemnation. He pleads their case before God, saying that they acted in ignorance.

Second, Jesus’ intercession for his executioners. Jesus speaks to his Father, to God on his throne, pleading for the forgiveness of his tormenters. They need to be forgiven, for what they are doing is unthinkable, almost unspeakable. To kill an innocent man was bad. When that man happens to be the promised Messiah, the very Son of God, there are no words left to express the horror of the acts.

Is there a connection here between forgiving others and our forgiveness? I think so. Jesus was dying so that our sins could be forgiven, so that the sins of his executioners could be forgiven, so that the sins of Caiaphas and Pilate might be forgiven. Jesus was able to plead for their forgiveness because he had already forgiven them. He could not be the instrument of our forgiveness if he lacked forgiveness in his own heart! If our sins were to be forgiven, Jesus had to be ready and willing to forgive even the most heinous of criminals. Those callous, self-serving, hypocritical murderers! I forgive you! I ask that God forgive you!

When we see the pitiful condition of Jesus on the cross, maybe we can begin to understand why we, too, must forgive. You see, forgiveness isn’t about letting someone off the hook. It’s not about forgetting and drifting into Christian senility. We need to be forgiven. We want to be forgiven. And we will never grasp this until we practice forgiveness ourselves. Forgiveness is as much about the forgiver as it is about the forgiven. We can never be whole until we are forgiven and forgiving. This is the great lesson of Jesus.

To forgive is to set a person free
and discover that the person was you.
Lewis Smedes

Prayer:

Forgiving Father, we look to Jesus just now. On the cross, his pain was beyond our understanding. He had been betrayed by those he loved. He had been beaten by mocking soldiers. He had nails pounded through his hands and feet. He had a crown of thorns shoved into his head. He didn’t deserve any of it. But he was not bitter. In his pain, he loved and he forgave. May you do a work of grace in our hearts, and may a powerful spirit of forgiveness consume us. We pray in Jesus’name, AMEN.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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Theological Mistakes #9: “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?”

As we enter the Lenten season, our hearts turn to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ last week leading up to his crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. A common way this season has been preached is to offer a series on the “Seven Last Words of Christ.” This is based on a compilation of seven utterances of Jesus from the cross that are recorded in the four Gospels.

All seven of these are rich with meaning and have theological implications for us. Perhaps the most puzzling one, though, is “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What are we to make of this. Is it a question, an accusation, or something else?

This statement, recorded in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34, has caused misunderstanding from the day it was uttered. At the time, it was misunderstood by those present at the cross. This is because Jesus made this statement in either the Hebrew language (Matthew’s version) or in the Aramaic language (Mark’s version). Therefore, the word translated “My God” was either “Eli” (Matthew) or the very similar “Eloi” (Mark). Which one was actually spoken by Jesus doesn’t really matter, but in either case, part of the crowd at the cross thought Jesus was crying for Elijah, the greatest of the Hebrew prophets. The tradition about Elijah was that he never died, but was taken into heaven in a fiery chariot while still living. Perhaps those at the cross imagined that Jesus was calling for Elijah to return in this flaming craft and take him away in a similar fashion. No doubt Jesus’ physical condition contributed to this, making his speech thick and difficult to understand. Both Matthew and Mark include this in their narrative as a tragically comic detail to show us how utterly alone and misunderstood Jesus was, even as he was dying.

It is the modern misunderstanding, however, that becomes a theological mistake for me. Rather than focus on the story as told by Matthew and Mark, some have mined this statement for its theological implications. In this endeavor, the statement has been seen as either a questioning accusation or an accusing question. The statement is taken literally. If Jesus accuses God of abandoning him, we must assume that God has, in fact, abandoned him. Having settled this in our minds, we can turn to our own question, “Why would God abandon Jesus on the cross?” Since neither Matthew nor Mark give us an answer to this question, we fall back on a systematic theological answer: God abandoned Jesus because it was at this moment that he took on the sins of the world. Since God is holy, he must turn his back on Jesus, because he cannot look upon sin (or he must separate himself from sin).

I object to this theory, which to me is nonsensical and borders on blasphemy. Let me give you four reasons. First, if this were the case, why didn’t Matthew or Mark give us this information? They are not shy about inserting theological commentary in their narratives (especially Matthew). Second, God can do anything he wants to do. For us to decide that he must turn his back on Jesus because of some sort of theological construct we have erected is not a wise move. Third, I cannot even begin to discuss the damage this does to the doctrine of the Trinity. If God the Father truly separated himself from God the Son, I don’t see how the charge of bitheism or ditheism does not apply. Either that or we must consider that somehow Jesus was drained of his divinity at this point, a sort of delayed or secondary Arianism. Fourth, I cannot escape from asking this question: If God turned his back on his Son because of sin, why would he not turn his back on me because of my sin?

So what are we to make of this statement of Jesus from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Just this: Jesus is quoting Scripture. Specifically, he is quoting Psalm 22, King David’s anguished cry to God at a time of great distress. If you read this psalm you will see that David’s opening cry is an expression of distress, a cry to God for help. Yet he addresses God throughout the psalm, and not as if he is talking to a turned back or a brick wall. David’s strong words to begin this psalm do not mean that God has, in reality, abandoned him.

Jesus is not teaching us that God had abandoned him. He is crying out to his Father in great distress, and he is using Scripture for this purpose. In some ways we see Jesus in a very human way here. This is not doubt and it certainly is not sin. As the Psalms teach us, it is OK to cry a prayer to God like this when we have in a rough period of life.  It is OK to ask God, “Why?” And it is OK to want God to come to our aid.

BTW: If you would like to hear my sermon on this, try the following links:

iTunes version, it will be sermon #66.

Vimeo version with PowerPoint

Mark Krause