Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
What are we to make of a King, President or Prime Minister who dies on a criminal’s cross, surrounded by mocking enemies? Kings are usually regarded as persons of power, but the gospels seem to show us a weak man very much under the power of his enemies. Adjectives that are generally associated with a king are royal, regal, sovereign, powerful, and magnificent. What is magnificent about this man, whose bruised and bloodied body is nailed to a cross between two criminals, while nearby the soldiers who drove home the nails gamble for his clothing? The only sign of kingship are the crown of thorns thrust down upon his head and a mocking sign ordered by Pilate “This is the King of the Jews”—and of course the jibes of the soldiers, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself!”
Obviously, Luke sees Jesus’ kingship in a very different form than the usual. He depicts three instances of Jesus’ mockery: the leaders “scoffed;” the soldiers “mocked;” and one of his companions in crucifixion “derided” him.” (This last word is especially intriguing in that the Greek verb is the root of our word “blaspheme.”) And yet, even as his enemies’ insults are hurled at him, Luke—and only Luke—records two remarkable sayings of Jesus on the cross. The first is “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” What an incredible thing for an innocent man to say to those standing by and enjoying his death. Forgive them? Forgive them indeed! These soldiers who have just driven nails through his hands, stripped him of his clothes and exposed his body to the shame of public exposure, and who now, before his dying eyes, throw dice to see who will walk away with his clothing? The very leaders who manipulated Pilate to condemn him. The snarling thief who is dying for sins he committed.
Luke the writer has absorbed Christ’s teachings about taking up the cross and following him. The evangelist has written about Jesus’ words concerning power and authority at the Last Supper when they were quarreling over who would possess the most power in Jesus’ kingdom. He sees, and helps us catch, a new understanding of kingship and power—not that issuing forth from scepters and swords, but that springing from a loving heart perfectly in tune with a loving heavenly Father.
Despite everything that his enemies can do to him, they do not have the power to make him hate. John got it right in his gospel when he has Jesus tell the arrogant governor Pilate that he had no power over him but what God had given to him. Jesus, not Pilate, or the Jewish leaders, or the Roman soldiers, is in command of his heart, and it is full of unconditional love. That is what his life and his mission are all about, and that is how he lived and how he died, loving to the bitter end. No power on earth, or in hell, can change or destroy such love. A short while later, another church leader would write a letter filled with declarations of and commands to love. He would sum this up in the definition beloved of believers ever since, “…for God is love.” (1 John 4:8 & 16) It is love we see on the cross, and it is words of love that we hear.
There were two thieves crucified with Jesus, and the one who did not deride him, rebuked the blaspheming one, confessing that unlike Jesus, they were being punished justly for their crimes. Then he turned in desperate hope to this man whom he had heard forgiving his enemies—I wonder if this startling statement of forgiveness had inspired his words of rebuke and his appeal to Jesus? —asking that he be remembered when Jesus came into his kingdom. To which Jesus assured him that he would be with him in Paradise this day. What a thing to say while hanging on a cross! Jesus certainly sees himself in a position of power—holding access to the very gates of heaven.
I know that many scholars question the authenticity of these sayings. Virtually all of the members of the Jesus Seminar turn both thumbs down on their historicity. Dr. Culpepper, in his study of Luke in the New Interpreter’s Bible points out that many of the best early biblical manuscripts leave out the “father, forgive them” passage. Yet, as he sifts through the evidence, he comes down on the side that says that Jesus did indeed speak these words. They are so true to the portrait of Jesus painted by all four gospels, and of Luke’s portrayal in particular. It is Luke’s gospel that emphasizes Jesus’ reaching out to the outcasts of society, both in his deeds (the story of Zacchaeus) and in the parables (The Good Samaritan and The Two Men Praying in the Temple).
Forgiveness flies in the face of our cultural values, both in Jesus’ day and today. Our literature and our films are filled with tales of men and women refusing to forgive but seeking vengeance and retribution. If Christ the King forgives at the moment of his death, can we do any less in the midst of life? (R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreter’s Bible [Nashville, 1995]). (More in Exegesis section.)
At the place of crucifixion, his cross was laid flat upon the ground. Usually it was a cross shaped like a T with no top piece against which the head could rest. It was quite low, so that the criminal’s feet were only two or three feet above the ground. There was a company of pious women in Jerusalem who made it their practice always to go to crucifixions and to give the victim a drink of drugged wine which would deaden the terrible pain. That drink was offered to Jesus and he refused it (Matthew 27:34). He was determined to face death at its worst, with a clear mind and senses unclouded. The victim’s arms were stretched out upon the crossbar, and it was usual for the nails to be driven through the wrists. The feet were not nailed, but only loosely bound to the cross. Half-way up the cross there was a projecting piece of wood, called the saddle, which took the weight of the criminal, for otherwise the nails would have torn through his wrists. Then the cross was lifted and set upright in its socket. The terror of crucifixion was this—the pain of that process was terrible, but it was not enough to kill, and the victim was left to die of hunger and thirst beneath the blazing noontide sun and the frosts of the night. Many a criminal was known to have hung for a week upon his cross until he died raving mad.
The clothes of the criminal were given as a ‘perk’ to the four soldiers among whom he marched to the cross. Every Jew wore five articles of apparel—the inner tunic, the outer robe, the girdle, the sandals and the turban. Four were divided among the four soldiers. There remained the great outer robe. It was woven in one piece without a seam (John 19:23–4). To have cut it up and divided it would have ruined it; and so, the soldiers gambled for it in the shadow of the cross. It was nothing to them that another criminal was slowly dying in agony.
The inscription set upon the cross was the same placard as was carried before a man as he marched through the streets to the place of crucifixion.
Jesus said many wonderful things, but rarely anything more wonderful than, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Christian forgiveness is an amazing thing. When Stephen was being stoned to death he too prayed, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’ (Acts 7:60). There is nothing so lovely and nothing so rare as Christian forgiveness. When the unforgiving spirit is threatening to turn our hearts to bitterness, let us hear again our Lord asking forgiveness for those who crucified him and his servant Paul saying to his friends, ‘Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you’ (Ephesians 4:32).
The idea that this terrible thing was done in ignorance runs through the New Testament. Peter later said to the people, ‘I know that you acted in ignorance’ (Acts 3:17). Paul said that they crucified Jesus because they did not know him (Acts 13:27). Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman emperor and Stoic saint, used to say to himself every morning, ‘Today you will meet all kinds of unpleasant people; they will hurt you, and injure you, and insult you; but you cannot live like that; you know better, for you are a man in whom the spirit of God dwells.’ Others may have in their hearts the unforgiving spirit, others may sin in ignorance; but we know better. We are Christ’s men and women; and we must forgive as he forgave. (Barclay, W. The Gospel of Luke [2001, Louisville, KY] pp. 337–339)
The authorities crucified Jesus between two known criminals. It was deliberately so staged to humiliate Jesus in front of the crowd and to rank him with robbers.
Legend has been busy with the penitent thief. He is called variously Dismas, Demas and Dumachus. One legend makes him a Judaean Robin Hood who robbed the rich to give to the poor. The loveliest legend tells how the holy family were attacked by robbers when they fled with the child Jesus from Bethlehem to Egypt. Jesus was saved by the son of the captain of the robber band. The baby was so lovely that the young brigand could not bear to lay hands on him but set him free, saying, ‘O most blessed of children, if ever there comes a time for having mercy on me, then remember me and forget not this hour.’ That robber youth who had saved Jesus as a baby met him again on Calvary; and this time Jesus saved him.
The word Paradise is a Persian word meaning a walled garden. When a Persian king wished to do one of his subjects a very special honor he made him a companion of the garden which meant he was chosen to walk in the garden with the king. It was more than immortality that Jesus promised the penitent thief. He promised him the honored place of a companion of the garden in the courts of heaven.
Surely this story tells us above all that it is never too late to turn to Christ. There are other things of which we must say, ‘The time for that is past. I am grown too old now.’ But we can never say that of turning to Jesus Christ. So long as our hearts continue to beat, the invitation of Christ still stands. As the poet wrote of the man who was killed as he was thrown from his galloping horse, Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, Mercy I asked, mercy I found. It is literally true that while there is life there is hope. (Barclay, W. The Gospel of Luke [2001, Louisville, KY] pp. 339–340)
The climax of the passion narrative is Jesus’ arrival at the place called the Skull, where in his crucifixion he is reckoned with transgressors, becoming a curse for us (CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA). The place called the Skull was also the location where Adam was buried (AMBROSE). The mystery of Christ’s death consists in how he as the new Adam restores us to paradise and to our original condition (CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA).
As the people cry out “Crucify him, crucify him,” Jesus is praying, “Father, forgive them.” Stephen’s forgiveness and martyrdom in Acts will show that what Christ was able to do from the cross all Christians are able to do in him. Christ’s forgiving words from the cross produce by his Spirit believers on Pentecost. Christians wear this cross on their foreheads to remind them of Christ’s forgiving love as he heals them as the great physician (AUGUSTINE). Jesus takes a cross which was devised for punishment and transforms it into a stepping stone to glory by proclaiming from it absolution for all humanity (LEO THE GREAT).
The degradation of Jesus’ nakedness is a significant part of the scandal of the cross, and yet it is through his nakedness that he conquers (AMBROSE). At the foot of the cross all of humanity, represented as Adam’s race, now lashes out against God’s Son with unbelievable malice (JUSTIN MARTYR). The inscription over the cross, though meant to mock his royal and messianic claims, speaks the truth (AMBROSE). One thief denies him; the other wins eternal glory (PRUDENTIUS). He did not save the scoffing thief by taking him down from the cross; he submitted him to the weakness of the cross (EPHREM THE SYRIAN).
The penitent evildoer’s confession of sin and of faith shows the proper response to Jesus’ absolution (CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA). The penitent thief is not ashamed of Christ’s suffering and does not see it as a stumbling block, and so he makes a confession of faith in the suffering, innocent Messiah. He sees on Christ’s body his own wounds, and despite the reality of Christ’s suffering and imminent death, he goes on to voice an even stronger confession: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (MAXIMUS OF TURIN).
To be with Christ in paradise “today” is to be with him even when he descends into hell (AUGUSTINE).This inheritance of paradise comes through the crucified flesh of Jesus, who is offered up on the altar of the cross as a sacrifice for sins (LEO THE GREAT). It is the cross that opens the key to paradise (JEROME). For those who confess Jesus as the innocent king, such life in paradise begins now, a great comfort for sinners (EPHREM THE SYRIAN).
THE MYSTERY OF CHRIST’S DEATH. CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA: By becoming like us and bearing our sufferings for our sakes, Christ restores human nature to how it was in the beginning. The first man was certainly in the Paradise of delight in the beginning. The absence of suffering and of corruption exalted him. He despised the commandment given to him and fell under a curse, condemnation and the snare of death by eating the fruit of the forbidden tree. By the very same thing, Christ restores him to his original condition. He became the fruit of the tree by enduring the precious cross for our sakes, that he might destroy death, which by means of the tree [of Adam] had invaded the bodies of humankind. COMMENTARY ON LUKE, HOMILY 153.
THEY CRY, “CRUCIFY HIM!” HE PRAYS, “FATHER, FORGIVE”. AUGUSTINE: Look at the Lord who did precisely what he commanded. After so many things the godless Jews committed against him, repaying him evil for good, did he not say as he hung on the cross, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing”? He prayed as man, and as God with the Father, he heard the prayer. Even now he prays in us, for us and is prayed to by us. He prays in us as our high priest. He prays for us as our head. He is prayed to by us as our God. When he was praying as he hung on the cross, he could see and foresee. He could see all his enemies. He could foresee that many of them would become his friends. That is why he was interceding for them all. They were raging, but he was praying. They were saying to Pilate “Crucify,” but he was crying out, “Father, forgive.” He was hanging from the cruel nails, but he did not lose his gentleness. He was asking for pardon for those from whom he was receiving such hideous treatment. SERMON 382.2. (Just, A. A. (Ed.). Luke [2005, Downers Grove, IL] pp. 359–363)
My first day at the lumber camp was probably the hardest. I was issued with thick leather gloves, and sent off to the first shed, where the planks arrived after the huge trees had been sliced up. The boards came out sideways on a huge conveyor belt, and had to be manhandled, in their different sizes, on to the trucks that took them to the next stage of the process. Up till this point, they were heavy and wet, partly because they were freshly cut and partly because they had arrived at the camp by being floated down the river. This conveyor system was known as the ‘green chain’; this is where the ‘green’ lumber arrived and was dealt with.
The next stage was to dry the planks, which was done in a huge drying shed, after which they were cut again and sent to the ‘dry chain’, where they were sorted for shipping. That’s where I ended up working for most of the time. By now the wood was about half the weight; all the moisture had been dried out of the planks, and they were easier to handle and ready for use.
The contrast between ‘green’ and ‘dry’ wood supplied Jesus with one of his darkest sayings. But if we find our way to the heart of it we will learn a lot about what he, and Luke as well, thought the cross was all about. ‘If they do this,’ he said, ‘when the wood is green, what will happen when it’s dry?’ (verse 31).
Jesus wasn’t a rebel leader; he wasn’t ‘dry wood’, timber ready for burning. On the contrary, he was ‘green wood’: his mission was about peace and repentance, about God’s reconciling kingdom for Israel and the nations. But he is saying, if they are even doing this to him, what will they do when Jerusalem is filled with young hotheads, firebrands eager to do anything they can to create violence and mayhem? If the Romans crucify the prince of peace, what will they do to genuine warlords?
Jesus, we must realize, knows that he is dying the death of the brigand, the holy revolutionary. That is part of the point. He is bearing in himself the fate he had predicted so often for the warlike nation; the woes he had pronounced on Jerusalem and its inhabitants (e.g. 13:1–5) were coming true in him. The One was bearing the sins of the many. But if the many refuse, even now, to turn and follow him, to repent of their violence, then the fate in store for them will make his crucifixion seem mild by comparison. The judgment that Rome will mete out on them will be so severe that people will beg the earth to open and swallow them up, as the prophets had warned (Hosea 10:8).
This explains the rest of the passage about the women, including its terrifying upside-down ‘beatitude’. Much earlier in the gospel Jesus had invoked God’s blessing on the poor, the meek, the hungry, the mourners. Now he tells the women that they will soon invoke that same blessing on those who didn’t have children, who would normally be deeply ashamed of the fact (compare 1:25). These mothers will see their own sons grow up to revolt against Rome and will watch them suffer the fate that Rome always inflicted on rebels. Jesus combines the clear statement of his own intention, to suffer Israel’s fate on her behalf, with the clear warning, echoing the warnings throughout the gospel, for those who do not follow him.
Luke makes the same point in a different way by contrasting the two who were crucified on either side of Jesus. The one taunts, but the other expresses Luke’s view of the whole scene. Jesus, once again, is dying the death appropriate for the rebel, the brigand, the criminal; he is bearing the sins of the many, innocent though he himself is.
At the heart of Luke’s picture of the cross is the mocking of Jesus as king of the Jews, which draws into a single stark sketch the meaning expressed by the various characters and the small incidents elsewhere in the narrative. Jesus has stood on its head the meaning of kingship, the meaning of the kingdom itself. He has celebrated with the wrong people, offered peace and hope to the wrong people, and warned the wrong people of God’s coming judgment. Now he is hailed as king at last, but in mockery. Here comes his royal cupbearer, only it’s a Roman soldier offering him the sour wine that poor people drank. Here is his royal placard, announcing his kingship to the world, but it is in fact the criminal charge which explains his cruel death.
His true royalty, though, shines out in his prayer and his promise, both recorded only in Luke. Unlike traditional martyrs, who died with a curse against their torturers, Jesus prays for their forgiveness. Like a king on his way to enthronement, Jesus promises a place of honor and bliss to one who requests it. (‘Paradise’ in Jewish thought wasn’t necessarily the final resting place, but the place of rest and refreshment before the gift of new life in the resurrection.) The prayer shows that the promise is not to be taken as meaning that the only hope is in a life after death, vital though that of course is. Forgiveness brings the life of heaven to earth, God’s future into the present. (Wright, T. Luke for Everyone [2004, London] pp. 281–284)
Because crucifixion was a common and shameful form of execution, the challenge facing the Gospel writers was to make clear to the readers the distinctive significance of Jesus’ crucifixion. Because Luke is not composing an essay but “an orderly account” (1:3), the details of the narrative itself must convey Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ death. For this purpose, he makes full use of the roles of the various characters in the story, the structure of three mocking’s, repeated allusions to the Scriptures, selected Christological titles, the mysterious phenomena that accompany the death of Jesus, the ironic truth of the taunts hurled at Jesus, and Jesus’ three pronouncements from the cross.
This section properly extends through v. 43, but it is so full of significant details that Jesus’ conversation with the penitent thief is best treated separately. In the previous scene (vv. 26–32), on the way to the place of crucifixion, Luke describes the roles of Simon of Cyrene, the women, and the two wrongdoers crucified with Jesus. Following the crucifixion and Jesus’ prayer for his tormentors, Luke records the taunting of Jesus by three groups using three different verbs: the leaders “scoffed” (v. 35, ἐκμυκτηρίζω ekmyktērizō), the soldiers “mocked” (v. 35, ἐμπαίζω empaizō), and one of the criminals “derided” him (v. 39, βλασφημέω blasphēmeō). All three taunts focus on the saving significance of Jesus’ death: “He saved others; let him save himself” (v. 35), “save yourself” (v. 37), and “save yourself and us” (v. 39). The Christological significance of the scene becomes apparent in Luke’s use of the titles for Jesus: “the Messiah [of God]” (vv. 35, 39), “the Chosen One” (v. 35), and “the King of the Jews” (vv. 37, 38).
. In Luke’s account, the first thing the crucified Jesus does is pray for those who have crucified him. Several difficult issues surround v. 34a. Who was Jesus praying for? Was the verse composed by Luke or inserted by a later scribe? If composed by Luke, why was it omitted in many early manuscripts?
Although the presence of v. 34a makes the change of subject to the soldiers in the latter part of the verse rough, it fits well following the report of the crucifixion in the previous verse. The setting raises the question of who Jesus was praying for: the Romans, the Jewish leaders, or both? The immediate context of the prayer requires that Jesus was praying for the soldiers who carried out the execution—they are the easiest to fit under the category of ignorance of what they were doing. Throughout, however, Luke has emphasized the role of the Jewish leaders (22:1–6, 52, 66; 23:4, 10, 13), and in the end the people are swayed to join in calling for Jesus’ death (23:18). Moreover, through the speeches in Acts, Luke repeatedly maintains that the Jewish leaders acted out of ignorance (e.g., Acts 3:17; cf. 13:27). Thus, Jesus’ prayer should be understood as asking forgiveness for all who were involved in his death.
The prayer is consistent with both Luke’s characterization of Jesus and Luke’s style. Jesus has prayed to God as “Father” repeatedly in Luke (10:21; 11:2; 22:42; 23:46), and Jesus has taught his followers to forgive (5:20–24; 6:27–29; 7:47–49; 17:3–4). Indeed, Jesus’ prayer here echoes the petition for forgiveness in the model prayer (11:4). It is more likely that Jesus died a model death, praying for those who were killing him—and this motif was repeated in the death of Stephen (Acts 7:60), the first Christian martyr—than that a scribe later composed the prayer for Jesus imitating Luke’s style and theme.
23:34b. In Luke, the division of Jesus’ garments provides a counterpoint to his prayer for forgiveness. The soldiers go about their grim business unaware of what was actually transpiring, but nevertheless fulfilling the Scriptures (Ps 22:18). Earlier, a woman in the crowd had desired to touch even the hem of Jesus’ garment (8:44), and when he entered Jerusalem, his followers had thrown their garments on the colt and on the road for him (19:35–36). Now, the soldiers take his last earthly possessions.
By breaking the unit at v. 38, the reader is able to end this section with the Christological confession articulated in the inscription above Jesus: “This is the king of the Jews.” So filled with pathos is the death of Jesus that one must respond with either derision or confession. Luke’s account of the crucifixion itself contains no meaningless details. Every element of the story serves to declare Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the significance of his death for the salvation of the world, or the fulfillment of Scripture in the events of this scene. The Christological focus of the passion narratives is as inherently right as it is restrained. We are spared graphic accounts of Jesus’ agony and the details of his appearance. Instead, the passion narratives make the point that the death of Jesus is salvifically important not because of how much he suffered but because of who he was and how his death was connected to both his life and the redemptive acts of God in the history of Israel. For this reason, the allusions to Scripture and to scenes earlier in the Gospel convey the themes by which we can make sense of the event. W. J. Ong observed, “Without themes, there would be no way to deal with event.” We can scarcely do better when interpreting the crucifixion of Jesus in Luke, therefore, than to follow Luke’s lead in portraying Jesus as the Christ, God’s chosen one, whose death fulfilled the Scriptures and brought salvation to the lost.
With bitter irony, the Lukan Jesus is one who brings good news to the poor, but at his death the people watch, the soldiers mock, and one of the criminals beside him blasphemes. God’s vindication of Jesus through the resurrection will mean God’s validation of Jesus’ message. In the interim, however, Jesus is “numbered with the transgressors” and bears “the sin of many” (Isa 53:12).
Luke does not defend any particular theory of the atonement. The traditional theories generally fall into one of the following categories: sacrifice, ransom, or moral influence. Luke never calls Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 NRSV; cf. John 1:36; Acts 8:32). Neither does the Lukan Jesus say “the Son of Man came … to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 NRSV). At most, the two on the road to Emmaus report, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (24:21; cf. 1:68; 2:38). No proof text suffices in these matters, but the absence of even such references as one finds in the other Gospels underscores the extent to which Luke relies on the account of Jesus’ death to carry the message of its significance. How one chooses to explain it, after all, is quite secondary to the confession that Jesus is the Christ, our Savior.
When one of the criminals crucified with Jesus joins in the mocking, the other criminal rebukes him, maintaining that Jesus has done nothing wrong. Jesus responds, assuring the “penitent thief” that he would be with Jesus in paradise.
Luke’s is the only Gospel to record the words of the men crucified with Jesus or to report a conversation among the three dying men. Mark 15:32 says only that those who were crucified with Jesus taunted him also. Whatever the origin of this tradition, it contributes to prominent Lukan themes. The taunt in v. 39 is the third in the series and again derides Jesus as the Savior (see Commentary on vv. 35–38). This scene further pictures Jesus dying among the outcasts, with whom he spent much of his ministry. In his rebuke of the other, the criminal adds his own affirmation of Jesus’ innocence. Earlier, Pilate and Herod had pronounced Jesus innocent, and later the centurion will echo the same judgment. Jesus’ defender asks to be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom, a request that may have arisen solely from the inscription over Jesus, but it also effectively reminds the reader of Jesus’ earlier declarations of the coming of the kingdom of God. Fittingly, as he is dying, Jesus extends mercy to one of the wretched, whose fate he shares.
Paul wrote: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19 NRSV). The Gospels reflect keen theological acumen, therefore, in connecting Jesus’ death with the promise of life to those who trust in him. Matthew inserts the legendary story that “the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many” (Matt 27:52–53 NRSV). The Gospel of John, which emphasizes the present fulfillment of future hopes, records that before his death Jesus approached the tomb of Lazarus and called him back to life (John 11:38–44), doing for one he loved a sign of what he would do for all “his own.” The promise to the dying criminal, therefore, is Luke’s way of making the same point. Others taunted Jesus, mocking him with challenges to save himself and others, so with fitting irony his last words to another human being are an assurance of salvation. Jesus began his ministry proclaiming “good news to the poor” and “release to the captives” (4:18), and he ends it extending an assurance of blessing to one of the wretched.
Here is good news not just for the “sweet by and by,” or even for “the year of the Lord’s favor” (4:19), but for “today” (23:43). The second of the words from the cross in Luke should move every reader to recognize that we, too, stand in need of God’s mercy (“Do you not fear God?”) and ask that God might remember us. As with so many other scenes from the Gospel, this one is a Gospel in miniature: Jesus, the dying Savior among the wretched; one who taunts him cynically and thereby rejects his mercy; and one who receives salvation because he looks forward to the kingdom of God. Thus the story invites the same response as the Gospel as a whole: Turn to the Lord for mercy and then spread the good news of God’s kingdom among the poor by doing for them as Jesus did during his ministry.
In what do you trust? The rich fool thought he had provided for himself for years to come, but God said, “This night …” (12:20). The dying criminal knew that he had no one else to whom he could appeal, and Jesus said to him, “Today.…” (Culpepper, R. A. The Gospel of Luke. In L. E. Keck (Ed.), New Interpreter’s Bible [1994–2004, Nashville] Vol. 9, pp. 453–459)
This Sunday us all about forgiveness. Forgiveness comes in many forms. Personal forgiveness for abuse and past violence. There is also the forgiveness of debt. There are many ways to talk about the power of forgiveness. We can talk about the way it improves the life of the forgiver. We can talk about the positive ways that even debt forgiveness brings about a positive change. However, what we fail to realize again and again how counter cultural the whole idea is in our modern world. Just as it was in Jesus’ day. We love the idea of forgiveness, but the practice of forgiveness still seems foreign to our way of doing. Doing forgiveness is the hardest thing to practice in any life. Some of us even after 10 or 20 years have a hard time forgiving what our parents or out business partners have done to us.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
The Croatian government will be wiping off the liabilities of around 60,000 of its poorest citizens in a move to provide a "fresh start" for its indebted low-earners and get the economy moving again.
Although much of the current debate among Europe's policymakers seems to regard debt relief as the ultimate taboo, the move for a government to cancel their citizens' liabilities, or for a sovereign to be forgiven by its creditors, is not nearly as unprecedented as we might think.
In their seminal work, 'This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly' economists Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff chart the long and varied history of sovereign debt defaults, noting that restructurings and write-offs have been key part of every major period of financial crisis.
With that in mind, here's a potted history of how creditors and debtors have dealt with debt repudiation since the dawn of time.
The practice of debt forgiveness can be traced all the way back to the Old Testament.
In Jewish Mosaic Law, every seventh Sabbath year saw the wiping away of all debts, where creditors cancelled all the obligations of their fellow Israelites.
Every 49th year (seven Sabbath years) was the 'Year of the Jubilee' when freedom from all debt and servitude was proclaimed throughout the land.
Unlike modern notions of debtor distress, where default is seen as the result of profligacy or misfortune on the part of the borrower, Judeo-Christian traditions rested on the principle that both creditors and debtors had a duty towards God.
In the New Testament, the Lord’s Prayer calls upon the disciples to ask God to “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors."
Loans were less a way to make money than they were a means to help one's fellow man. Given that all worldly wealth and property belonged ultimately to God, a creditors' rights over it were temporary rather than absolute.
Smashing tablets in Babylon
One of the most famous proclamations of the virtue of debt repudiation comes from ancient Babylon (modern-day Iraq).
In 1792BC, the self-proclaimed King Hammurabi of Babylon forgave all citizens’ debts owed to the government, high-ranking officials, and dignitaries.
The Code of Hammurabi, which currently sits in the Louvre in Paris, declared:
If anyone owe a debt for a loan, and a storm prostrates the grain, or the harvest fail, or the grain does not growth for lack of water, in that year he need not give his creditor any grain, he washes his debt-tablet in water and pays no rent for this year.
Hammourabi’s jubilees were part of a long line of debt cancellations that can be traced back to Mesopotamia as long ago as 2400BC.
Historians have counted around thirty episodes of general debt cancellations from 2400 to 1400 BC, noting they were occasions of great festivity which often involved the physical destruction of the tablets on which liabilities were recorded.
Rescuing Europe from the Great Depression
Europe emerged from the conflict of the First World War debt-addled and in a depression.
By the mid-1930s, many countries had begun abandoning the Gold Standard in a bid to reflate their economies without the burden an anachronistic exchange-rate system.
As part of this process, most of Europe's governments had a significant portion of their liabilities written-off for good.
During 1932-39, average debt relief amounted to 19pc of national output in advanced economies, according to economists Carmen Reinhart and Christoph Tresbech.
For the likes of France and Greece, the jubilees were closer to 50pc and 40pc of GDP respectively.
Full repayment was so rare, that Finland was the sole European sovereign who managed to honor all its post-war obligations.
Germany's post-war economic miracle
Only 16pc of polled Germans currently think Greece should be the recipient of some form of debt cancellation from the eurozone. The irony of Berlin's obstinacy on debt relief may well be lost on some.
Following the end of WWII, the London Debt Agreement of 1953 saw the abolition of all of Germany's external debt. The total forgiveness amounted to around 280pc of GDP from 1947-53, according to historian Albrecht Ritschl.
The cancellation, along with an extension of its repayment schedule, allowed Germany to return to the financial markets, and become part of the IMF and World Bank.
The London agreement also helped set in motion the country's incredible export performance as Germany was required to service its debt through money earned from foreign trade.
In the words of historian Ursula Rombeck-Jaschinski, Germany's "economic miracle would have been impossible without the debt agreement." (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/11383374/The-biggest-debt-write-offs-in-the-history-of-the-world.html)
The Feast of Christ the King is a relatively new feast. It was first declared by Pope Pius XI in 1925 at a time of heightened nationalism and secularism. Its biblical origins are very deep, going back to the anointing of kings like David in ancient Israel, as we hear in the opening reading. In the New Testament, it is rooted in the identification of Jesus as the Messiah or Anointed One. Its theological significance is acknowledged in its ecumenical acceptance in the calendars of Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox Church calendars as well.
In the Catholic Church, the feast is associated with the church’s proclamation of the Gospel of Justice and Peace. In other years, the connection is more evident. The most memorable gospel reading is Matthew’s parable of the Last Judgment, where the King commends the righteous, “Whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done for me.” The spirit of the feast is also caught in the preface of the Mass. It describes Christ’s kingdom as
a kingdom of truth and life,
a kingdom of holiness and grace,
a kingdom of justice, love and peace.
Today’s gospel, however, takes us in a different direction. One might say it takes us deeper. It refines our understanding of the Kingdom of God as one that includes forgiveness. And it reminds us how different Christ’s kingship is from that of political messiahs who establish themselves with victory over their enemies. Jesus is a suffering Messiah whose sovereignty is expressed in his forgiveness and the absence of crushing power. Of course, he came announcing the Kingdom through preaching the forgiveness of sins. Luke’s Gospel, however, shows Jesus forgiving sin of the repentant thief in an hour of utter weakness on the cross, even as he is taunted by the leaders of the people and the second convict. Luke has made the cross a symbol of forgiveness.
Until very recently forgiveness was regarded as a private act of virtue. But it is closely related to peacemaking. The Second Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation treats forgiveness as part of a family of acts that make for peace. It reads:
In the midst of conflict and division, we know it is You who turn our minds to thoughts of peace.
Your Spirit changes our hearts, enemies begin to speak together, those who are estranged join hands in friendship, and nations seek the way of peace together.
Your Spirit is at work when understanding puts an end to strife, when hatred is quenched by mercy, and vengeance gives way to forgiveness.
Forgiveness stands with charity at the heart of the Christian message.
The late John Paul II understood this better than most. In 2002, following 9/11, he entitled his World Day of Peace Message, “No Justice without Forgiveness.” It was a lesson drawn from the religious and ethnic wars of the 1990s in the Former Yugoslavia. There even after fighting ceased grievances over old injuries continued to prevent a real peace coming into being. For genuine peace to break out, John Paul argued, yes, there needs to be justice, but bare justice will not heal the wounds of war. For a healing peace you need forgiveness. It is the Christlike act of forgiveness that in rendering justice stable gives peace.
John Paul walked the walk. He forgave his own assassin, Mehmet Agça. He wrote more than 20 letters of apology to heretics, colonized groups, minorities, the victims of holy wars and others for offenses committed by the Church. As part of the Great Jubilee in 2000 he also led a service of pardon that asked God’s forgiveness for the sins of church leaders over the past thousand years. It is a shame, I think, that we in the U.S. never picked up his message of forgiveness as one of the lessons of 9/11, for feelings of resentment and Islamophobia still fester in our American body politic more than a decade after the attacks. We still need the healing that forgiveness can bring.
All the same, forgiveness has become part of political life in a way it rarely was prior to the 1990s. In 1998, for example, President Bill Clinton stopped at the airport in Kigali, Rwanda, to apologize for U.S. inaction in preventing the genocide of Tutsi in Rwanda four years before. Many experts now regard apology and forgiveness, as never before, to be necessary to facilitate peace processes and to secure social peace after civil conflict. Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu headed the Peace and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa as a way of building civic amity after the election of Nelson Mandela as president and the establishment of a black majority government there. In numerous countries, similar efforts have been utilized after conflict to secure the peace. As Tutu argues, “There is no future without forgiveness.”
Forgiveness, therefore, is a political virtue, even a political necessity. Most societies who resort to it have been tested in civil war or ethnic and religious conflict. To date, we in the United States have been spared that kind of trial at least since the Civil War one hundred and fifty years ago. But without forgiveness and the other peaceable virtues we could suffer such bloody divisions again.
Consider the various vices and bad states of affairs cited in the Preface for Reconciliation: conflict and division, enmity, estrangement, nationalism, strife, hatred and vengeance. Are these not conditions that infect the body politic today? Is not politics blocked by partisan and ideological division? Are not politicians and to great measure the citizenry estranged from one another? Do not some of us accuse others of not being true Americans? Does not the strife on almost every issue give rise to hatred and vengeance? Are not all these signs that we are very far from reflecting the Kingdom of Christ in our politics? Is not our political distemper a sign that many of us have rejected Christ as our king; that we can’t forgive; that we think only of victory and not of peace; that we prefer to demonize our adversaries rather than speak with them; that we are unwilling to try to understand one another; that in our American exceptionalism we are reluctant to pursue peace with others; that we resist making mercy and forgiveness as our own virtues?
There are models in our midst of Christlike forgiveness. The Amish community in West Nickel Mines, PA, who, after ten schoolgirls were taken hostage in 2006 and five killed in their school house, forgave the perpetrator is one example. As one Lancaster County neighbor put it, “I don't think there's anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts." One Amish man went to comfort the perpetrator’s family; another held the sobbing father of the perpetrator for an hour to comfort him, and the Amish community took up a collection to support the family of the shooter.
The “Amish Grace,” as one author called, is exceptional, but it shouldn’t be, because forgiveness is basic to the Christian life. Luke displays Jesus offering paradise to the thief, because he wants to show us the importance of forgiveness. Jesus himself left us a direct witness to the importance of forgiveness in the Our Father. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” So, when you think of the Kingdom of God, Christ’s Kingdom, think of the place of forgiveness in your personal and family life, and think of the place of forgiveness ought to have in politics and public life as well, where forgiveness will be the seal of lasting peace. (https://www.americamagazine.org/content/good-word/kings-forgiveness)
Forgiveness transforms anger and hurt into healing and peace. Forgiveness can help you overcome feelings of depression, anxiety, and rage, as well as personal and relational conflicts. It is about making the conscious decision to let go of a grudge. Why would anyone want to forgive someone who has wronged her in the past? It is not about letting someone off the hook for a wrongdoing, or forgetting about the past, or forgetting about the pain. It certainly does not mean that you stick around for future maltreatment from a boss, a partner, parent, or friend. It is about setting yourself free so that you can move forward in your own life. Joan Borysenko said in an interview, "You can forgive someone who wronged you and still call the police and testify in court." Forgiveness requires a deep inquiry within ourselves about "our story."
Forgiveness means giving up the suffering of the past and being willing to forge ahead with far greater potential for inner freedom. Anne Lamott famously declared, "Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a different past." Besides the reward of letting go of a painful past, there are powerful health benefits that go hand-in-hand with the practice of forgiveness. In the physical domain, forgiveness is associated with lower heart rate and blood pressure as well as overall stress relief. It is also associated with improving physical symptoms, reducing fatigue in some patient populations, and improving sleep quality. In the psychological domain, forgiveness has been shown to diminish the experience of stress and inner conflict while simultaneously restoring positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
The problem for many of us is that sometimes we can choose to forgive another, but still in our heart of hearts, the anger or resentment lingers. However, it is in fact possible to forgive and truly let go of past disappointments, hurts, or blatant acts of abuse. Although at times this may seem implausible, forgiveness is a teachable and learnable skill that can dramatically improve with practice over time.
Harvard researcher and physician George Vaillant describes forgiveness as one of the eight positive emotions that keep us connected with our deepest selves and with others. He considers these positive emotions to be key ingredients that bind us together in our humanity and they include love, hope, joy, compassion, faith, awe, and gratitude. Whether you have a spiritual bent or not, the research supports the notion that developing stronger positive emotions supports us in leading healthier, happier, and more connected lives. When we forgive and develop these other positive emotions we become less encumbered by the scars of the past.
The question remains: How do we give up a grudge and forgive someone who has hurt, disappointed, or betrayed us? Fred Luskin talks about the way we develop our grievance story in his book Forgive For Good. Your grievance story is the one you tell over and over to yourself, and possibly to others, about the way you were maltreated and the way you became the victimized. Luskin teaches us to cast our story in such a way that we become a survivor of difficult times, or -- better yet -- the hero of our story.
The following strategy model for learning forgiveness is derived from an amalgam of work by several researchers and my own work as a psychologist:
1. Inquire deeply about the root of your anger or grudge. Look at the situation honestly, without embellishing or rearranging the details. Pay attention to how this anger is holding you back and keeping you hostage in your own day-to-day existence.
2. Review your grievance story and reengineer that story so you see yourself in a more empowered way. Perhaps you chose to disengage or limit your time spent with a friend or family member that has consistently been hurtful to you. Perhaps you left a toxic partner. You had the fortitude to leave a bad situation. You were indeed the survivor and hero in your own story. Look at the strengths that you developed as a result of this situation. Being hurt or compromised can be your invitation to a transformative new path and a more fulfilling life.
3. Develop your capacity for empathy and compassion for yourself for landing in a painful situation. Blaming yourself for not seeing the signs sooner doesn't help, and slows down the process of making change. Also, in my professional experience, usually abusers have been abused themselves, and they are operating at a deficit. Without accepting their hostile behaviors, try to understand the pain and suffering that he or she must be enduring. You can understand and forgive without accepting bad or abusive behavior.
4. Create new associations with your old story of neglect or abuse. Perhaps you can practice a ritual that signifies the end of things as they were and say goodbye to the past as you once experienced it. Welcome the good, the support, and the love that you now invite into your life. Light a candle, for example, to symbolize the brightness of the moment and the days ahead, or gather some friend to celebrate the end of an era and the beginning of a new phase of life.
Remember that you cannot control others, but you can control your own choices. As you continue to reshape your grievance story -- becoming the hero of that story, developing empathy, and compassion for the abuser and celebrating your strengths -- you will undoubtedly begin to notice a shift in your consciousness. Your feelings of anger and sadness are likely to quiet down and your self-esteem is likely to blossom, as will your relationships. (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/forgiveness_b_2006882)
In the vengeance-themed movie Man On Fire Creasy, a burnt-out former government assassin asks his friend “Do you think that God can forgive us for what we have done?” From the way he talks, it is obvious that he thinks that the answer is “No.” But he asks it again a little later, and in between these two questions he apparently clings to a measure of hope that maybe the answer will be “Yes,” because we see him reading his Bible—and when a teaching nun quotes from the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Creasy can give the chapter and verse from which it came. Unfortunately, the filmmakers do not go much further in exploring this important question. When the lively little girl Creasy is guarding is kidnapped and apparently killed, the move goes into Rambo mode and Creasy, arming himself with a variety of lethal weapons becomes a comic book-like superhero slaughtering bad guys left and right. It’s almost as if he is determined to behave so cruelly—some of the killings he presides at are truly gruesome! —that he will make sure that God does not forgive him. But the thief on the cross stands in witness to the possibility of a positive answer to Creasy’s question, and Creasy himself gives up his life as a sacrifice that might indicate that he will receive redemption after all.
In the movie The Spitfire Grill Percy also believes that she is beyond the forgiveness of God. She has just been released from prison for killing her former husband, but it is not guilt over his death that haunts her so. It is because she had not been able to protect her baby from his abuse. By the time she rose up and killed her mate, he had injured their infant child so that it had died. She feels she had failed in her calling to be a mother. And yet Percy herself becomes a channel of amazing grace that transforms the lives of many of the people whom she meets.
Nick Nolte starred in a film called The Good Thief in which he is Bob, a drug-addicted thief who often thinks of “the good thief,” as calls him, in Luke’s gospel. That there is some goodness in him we see when he rescues Ann, a teenager who has been forced into prostitution by a pimp. Bob knows that he must quit drugs if he is to continue to help Ann. He also hatches a plan to steal a fortune in paintings that hang on the walls of the local casino. Roger, a local police detective hovers around Bob, not because he wants to send him away to prison, but to protect Bob from himself. He tells his associate that they must discover what Bob is up to in regard to the casino before Bob has a chance to carry out his plans. He too sees Bob as “the good thief,” capable of redemption.
Over thirty years ago when the Presbyterians were still producing radio and television spots, they produced a delightful animated one called “It’ll Teach Him a Lesson.” Patterned after the then-popular Westerns, the storyline consisted of a poor man stealing a rich rancher’s steer so that he and his family would not starve to death. However, the cowhands caught the man and brought him before their boss. The boss said cruelly, “String him up—it’ll teach him a lesson.” Then that night, when the boss went to sleep, he dreamt that he had died and was brought before the judgment seat of God. Expecting a harsh sentence because of his merciless punishment of the poor man, he heard the verdict, “Forgive him—it’ll teach him a lesson.”
There are two images of King Jesus in the contemporary church. The first image is a continuation of the earliest view of the Messiah – a martial figure whose robust triumph ends all wars after He vanquishes Satan. The Left Behind series illustrates this image, but the image is as old as the Bible. The second image is a softer view of the Messiah – a redemptive figure whose patient compassion is waiting attentively to ‘hear some sinner pray’ in the words of the old spiritual song. As much as I would like to have evil vanquished in one fell swoop, I suspect King Jesus is going to win his kingdom one sinner at a time. .
In less than .2 seconds a search of the phrase “King Jesus” on Google turned up 3.32 million references on the World Wide Web. As much as the contemporary liberal mind recoils at the image of kingship, it is an image that has endured through two thousand years. It will endure another two thousand years because of two things: Jesus identified himself as a king, albeit one whose kingdom was ‘not of this world;’ no other image addresses so clearly our human desire for a single leader whose character is the source world-wide goodness, truth, justice and mercy. .
It is instructive to go to a major internet search service like Google or Yahoo and looking at the images that arise when looking for the phrase “King Jesus.” Throughout the centuries people of traditional and non-traditional faith have nevertheless needed to portray the power they experience in the person of Jesus through the image of kingship.
Last year saw two blockbuster movies that gave us very similar views of kingship. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King showed us how the courage, persistence and faith of even a very small and humble creature can affect the destiny of the world. Likewise The Passion of the Christ showed us the redemptive power of suffering and its capacity to shatter virulent evil. Behind the hoards of Orcs being finally wasted by the sudden appearance of a band of ghostly warriors and the isolated Satan ‘wigging out’ in some deserted pit stands a simple message: before the crown one must endure the cross. .
In case you’ve forgotten, here is a synopsis of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Sauron’s forces have laid siege to Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor, in their efforts to eliminate the race of men. The once-great kingdom, watched over by a fading steward, has never been in more desperate need of its king. But can Aragorn answer the call of his heritage and become what he was born to be? In no small measure, the fate of Middle-earth rests on his broad shoulders. With the final battle joined and the legions of darkness gathering, Gandalf urgently tries to rally Gondor’s broken army to action. He is aided by Rohan’s King Theoden, who unites his warriors for history’s biggest test. Yet even with their courage and passionate loyalty, the forces of men—with Eowyn and Merry hidden among them—are no match for the enemies swarming against Gondor. Still, in the face of great losses, they charge forward into the battle of their lifetimes, tied together by their singular goal to keep Sauron distracted and give the Ring Bearer a chance to complete his quest. Their hopes rest with Frodo, a tiny but determined hobbit making a perilous trip across treacherous enemy lands to cast the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom. The closer Frodo gets to his final destination, the heavier his burden becomes and the more he must rely on Samwise Gamgee. Gollum—and the Ring itself—will test Frodo’s allegiances and, ultimately, his humanity. “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” concludes the epic story of these characters, their relationships and rivalries, and reveals how through courage, commitment and determination even the least of us can change the world.
Luke tells of that memorable moment when the repentant thief expresses sorrow and asks Jesus for forgiveness. As many of us are aware, saying that we’re sorry is not always an easy thing to do. That is what people in Australia realize. According to National Geographic (June 2003), Australia instituted a national Sorry Day. The purpose of that special day was to provide an opportunity for the white Australians to apologize for the mistreatment they inflicted on the Aborigines across the years. From the early part of the nineteenth century until the late 1970s white Australians kidnapped perhaps as many as 50,000 Aboriginal children from their families and placed them in orphanages and foster homes in an effort to “civilize” them. That program was sanctioned by the Australian government and was done in an effort to build up the nation. In order to atone partially for what they did, for the past seven years Australians have been observing May 26 as Sorry Day, on which the Whites of that land are encouraged to seek out and ask forgiveness from their Aboriginal neighbors. In addition, Sorry Day is also marked each year with lectures, poetry readings, and art exhibits. Not everyone in Australia, though, thinks that Sorry Day is a good idea. For instance, Prime Minister John Howard has refused to offer an official apology for what happened, partly because he is concerned that such an apology might open the way for litigation and costly reparation payments. Other modern-day Australians see no reason why they should have to apologize for the deeds of their forebears.
The paradox is that the Jesus who is condemned in weakness is also the Jesus who reigns in sacred power. In Violence and the Sacred, Rene Girard notes that the Latin word sacer can be translated both as “sacred” and “accursed.” Other languages have analogous words, such as mana of the Melanesians, waken of the Sioux, and orenda of the Iroquois.
The festival of Christ the King gives us an opportunity to consider how we have often stripped Jesus of his royal status. In The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey refers to Dorothy Sayers’ observation that Christians have “very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.”
Although the authorities believed that they would bring Jesus’ kingdom to an end by killing him, they later discovered that that act served the purpose of spreading the kingdom to dimensions that they had never envisioned. Walter Wink, for example, says that killing Jesus was like trying to destroy a dandelion seed-head by blowing on it.
Presumably there was some time that had taken place between when the thief on the cross had committed his crimes and when he eventually confessed his wrongdoing to Jesus. Throughout history, however, often it is the case that many years go by before misdeeds are finally apologized for. National Geographic (June 2003) lists a few such examples: it took East Germany about 50 years, until 1990, to apologize for its role in the Holocaust; it was not until 1995 that the prime minister of Japan apologized to the victims of World War II; the Queen of England apologized to the native Maoris of New Zealand in 1995 for land that was unjustly seized from them 130 years before; and approximately 60 years after the fact, President Bill Clinton apologized to the 399 African Americans who were unknowingly exposed to syphilis as part of a government experiment in the 1930s.
A character in the movie Malcolm X offers a poignant insight: there is nothing more dangerous in the world than someone with nothing to lose. Jesus certainly was such a person, realizing that even if he lost his life on the cross, a glorious future awaited him.
In an essay titled “Sitting Down to Eat or Standing Up to Life” in Just Preaching: Prophetic Voices for Economic Justice, Lewis Kamrass mentions a story that is told about Nikita Krushschev, the late premier of the former Soviet Union. One day he was giving a speech in which he passionately denounced the corruption and terror that occurred during his predecessor’s reign. In mid-sentence Krushschev was interrupted by a voice that bellowed from the midst of the audience, “And where were you during this time?” The premier stared at the crowd of faces before him and demanded to know who had said that, but no one dared to respond. Krushschev quietly replied, “That’s where I was.” We often hesitate to speak the truth to the powerful of our world for fear of the consequences that might ensue. But neither John the Baptist nor Jesus hesitated to declare the truth to the powers that be of their age, because they knew that the King they served was far greater than any earthly king.
Understanding the nature of Jesus’ kingship is the key to understanding the nature of God’s kingship. In Reaching for the Invisible God: what can we expect to find?, Philip Yancey notes how H. Richard Niebuhr compared the revelation of God in Christ to the Rosetta stone. Before the Rosetta stone was discovered, Egyptologists could only guess at the meaning of the various hieroglyphics. When the Rosetta stone was finally discovered, however, it presented the same text in Greek, in ordinary Egyptian script, and in the previously undecipherable hieroglyphics. By comparing those texts side by side, the mysteries of the hieroglyphics suddenly became understandable.
The reading from the first chapter of Luke speaks of the special purpose that John the Baptist had in life. Where are the prophets like John the Baptist who are prepared to challenge officials who perpetrate injustices today? Kenneth Kaunda, the former president of Zambia, wrote, “What a nation needs more than anything else is not a Christian ruler in the palace but a Christian prophet within earshot.”
Later this week is Thanksgiving. In Strength for the Journey: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, Peter Gomes of Harvard University encourages Christians to engage is a different approach to the mealtime prayer and conversation. He suggests, “As you gather around your tables with your dysfunctional families and friends, I invite you to remember not the usual good things...but the bad things....Think of your worst moments, your sorrows, your losses...and then remember that here you are, able to remember them.”
Sometimes we hesitate to express our thanks because it requires us to admit the debt of gratitude that we owe to the one who helped us. In The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need, Peter Gomes makes that point when he writes: “Although people are always relieved to be given assistance and are even thankful for it, they do not like to be reminded of it....To acknowledge the power that helped you is also an acknowledgment...that you are not as powerful or independent as you had thought....”
The United States Census Bureau (11/13/02) gives us a detailed look at many of the components of our traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Each year Americans consume 270 million turkeys, totaling about 7.2 billion pounds. Throughout the course of the year, Americans eat somewhere around 572 million pounds of cranberry sauce, and 1.4 billion pounds of sweet potatoes. In addition, each year residents of the United States enjoy 831 million pounds of pumpkin. Three towns across the country are named for the patron bird of Thanksgiving: Turkey, Texas; Turkey Creek, Louisiana; and Turkey, North Carolina.
In Strength for the Journey: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, Peter Gomes tells of an elderly pastor friend of his who has an old bulletin from a service that was held on the fourth Thursday in November 1936. The bulletin declared the day to be “Thanksliving Day.”
No matter what has been said about the blood and gore of Mel Gibson’s The Passion, his is a portrait of a forgiving king. Not only does his Christ utter the great words “Father, forgive them…” but he also provides a flashback to the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus spoke about loving enemies. Jesus’ words of love in this flashback become all the more surprising, all the more revolutionary, when set amidst the incredible brutal treatment inflicted upon Jesus by his enemies, especially the Romans. His is indeed a forgiving king, whose words are needed as much as ever today, amidst the round of retaliation between groups who hate each other.
Humanity is never so beautiful as when praying for forgiveness, or else forgiving another. (Jean Paul Richter)
“The more seriously we take the future promise of God’s kingdom, the more unbearable will be the contradictions of that promise which we meet in the present.” (Jürgen Moltmann)
“Jesus Christ will be Lord of all or he will not be Lord at all.” (Augustine)
“Before we can pray, ‘Thy kingdom come,’ we must be willing to pray, ‘My kingdom go.’” (Alan Redpath)
“Thankfulness is a soil in which pride does not easily grow.” (Michael Ramsay)
“The Christian is suspended between blessings received and blessings hoped for, so he should always give thanks.” (M. R. Vincent)
He who forgives ends the quarrel. (African Proverb)
Nothing in this lost and ruined world bears the meek impress of the Son of God so surely as forgiveness. (Alice Cary)
“Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.” (Oscar Wilde)
Jane Austin, in Pride and Prejudice, shows through her character Mr. Collins the lip service paid to Christ’s teaching when he said, “You ought certainly to forgive them as a Christian, but never to admit them in your sight, or allow their names to be mentioned in your hearing.”
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch
People: He shall reign as king and deal wisely and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
Leader: In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.
People: And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
All-Knowing God, we confess that we have strayed from your ways. You call us to righteousness, but instead we get caught up in our petty schemes and agendas. You call us to peace, but instead we fight with our family and neighbors. Forgive us our transgressions, and bring your Holy Spirit upon us. Teach us to be righteous people. In the name of Christ we pray. Amen.
Loving God, we offer our gifts of money, time, and talent to you this day. We pray that you will send us out into your world to make disciples, guiding us and encouraging us. We pray that your Holy Spirit will lead us. Amen.
Righteous God, we praise you that you sent Christ to be our King. We thank you for his sacrifice on the cross, for his willingness to save us by dying, thereby saving all of humanity. We come before you today with our prayers, both our joys and concerns. We know that you hear us.
We pray for churches all over the world and this nation who are proclaiming Christ as King this morning. Pour out your Holy Spirit upon all of us as we join together as the body of Christ, your Church. Show us your will, unify us, and ignite our hearts, that we may make disciples of all nations.
We pray for our community and our own church today. We ask your healing for those who are suffering in mind, body, or spirit. We humbly pray that you will use us sitting here to make a difference in your world. Teach us how to reach out to others, whether it’s a kind word or a hot meal, a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on. Teach us to be Christ to one another. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.