Today’s meditation reflects on the first of the Last Seven Words of Jesus. All seven passages are from the Gospels, and they often serve as the focus of the church’s prayers on Good Friday. Given the length of each mediation, I have chosen to offer one a day, ending on Good Friday. This is the second of eight meditations.
In Clint Eastwood’s 1992 film, “Unforgiven,” gunfighter William Munny is drawn out of retirement a final time.[i] Munny is a man with a guilty conscience and good reason for having one. Having lived a murderous life as a young man, it was only his wife’s influence that drew him out of the life that he once lived. But, now Munny is desperate. His wife has died. He cares for two small children, and his efforts at pig farming have failed in the face of an epidemic that threatens to destroy the small herd by which he supports his family.
A reward is offered to the one who delivers justice to two cowhands who have brutally injured a prostitute, and Munny, and the prospect of that reward brings a young gunfighter to his door, looking for Munny’s help. The young man talks a good game, and he claims to have killed five men, but in fact, has yet to kill a single soul.
But he has heard that Munny is perhaps the meanest, coldblooded killer alive, and he wants to compensate for his limitations by enlisting Munny’s assistance. Munny relents and joins the kid in his efforts. When the young neophyte finally shoots one of the cowhands responsible for injuring the prostitute, he catches his victim unprepared for a fight. Yet it still takes three attempts to kill the first man he has ever shot.
Alongside Munny, sitting under a tree outside of town and awaiting their reward, “The Kid” confesses his agony. “It don’t seem real… how he ain’t gonna never breathe again, ever…how he’s dead…all on account of pulling a trigger.” Munny responds, “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”
Looking for relief, the Kid responds, “Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming.” Based on his own bitter experience, Munny knows better and, after a long pause, finally responds, “We all got it coming, Kid.”
It is common in theological circles to talk about our views of Jesus, and we frequently talk about the adequacy of those views. Do we balance the divine and the human? Do we use the right words and metaphors to describe what he accomplishes on the cross? To hear us talk, you would think that Jesus needs us, that somehow the second person of the Trinity would have nothing to do, if it weren’t for our us. But make no mistake. Jesus does not need us. We need him.
Murderers, killers, and gunfighters? Most of us don’t fit those descriptions. But we can hardly say we don’t have it coming, and truth be told, William Munny wasn’t motivated in ways that are radically different from the ways in which we all are motivated. Frailty, fear, and despair took him to Big Whiskey, Wyoming over well-worn, sin-strewn horse trails, and those deeper motivations often shape our lives as well.
So it’s hardly surprising that the saving work of Jesus begins here with the words, “Father, forgive them.” Paradoxically, though, that’s not always welcome news. Suggest that forgiveness might be necessary — or that confession might be important — and we revolt. Instantly we are convinced that Jesus is trying to make us feel bad about ourselves, or that God is simply cruel, a bully with knowledge we don’t possess and demands we cannot fulfill.
But our reaction is a function of the lies our culture tells us about forgiveness. There is nothing in the life and ministry of Jesus remotely suggesting that the offer of forgiveness is ever meant to be punitive.
A far better way of visualizing our need to receive forgiveness is to imagine our hands so full of trivial and vain justifications for our behavior that we lack the freedom to receive what God has to give us. Confession is not about punishment or derision. It’s about rescue, ground clearing, the elimination of obstacles, the healing of the heart, and the breaking of chains.
St. John Chrysostom understood this, telling candidates for baptism that God does not uncover our sins publicly, but invites us to confess them to God alone, so that we might “learn the greatness of the gift” of forgiveness.[ii] The Desert Fathers understood it too, telling stories that illustrate much the same point:
At Scete a brother had slipped up, and a counsel was held. They sent for Abba Moses, but he refused to come. So the priest sent for him, saying, “Come, for the company is waiting for you.” He got up and came; he took a basket with many holes, filled it with sand and carried it [with him]. Coming out to meet him, they said to him, “What is this, Father?” and the elder said to them, “My sins are running out behind me, and I do not see them – yet here I have come today to pass judgment on the faults of another!” They said nothing to the brother when they heard this, but they forgave him.[iii]
There is, however, another dimension to the words that Jesus utters here. The words of Jesus are not just an invitation to the individual; but a once-and-for-all, cosmic change in the order of things. Jesus does not simply forgive his executioners. He forgives all of us.
Why is this important? For one thing, it tells us something about the nature of God and the timelessness of God’s healing work in the world. One of the great obstacles to spiritual growth for many people is the sense that there is no one and nothing upon which one can depend.
Some years ago, I had a conversation with a directee. We had been talking for a long time. He was active in church and keenly interested in theological topics. In fact, he read more widely and deeply than many clergy. But getting him to talk about his relationship with God was far more difficult. In fact, I couldn’t be sure whether he was troubled by academic questions or he was using his intellectual interests as a foil for evading that relationship.
But for someone who could be so “heady,” academic questions were not what kept him from prayer. As I prompted him to explore his life for clues to the relationship – or lack of it – that he had with God, it became clear to him and to me that what had made that impossible, was the behavior of his parents and grandparents when he was a young child.
At an early age his parents (who constantly fought with one another) told him in no uncertain terms that he was “an accident,” and that they had never intended to have a child. He lived in constant fear of disapproval and every failure to meet his parents’ expectations was called to his attention. When, as an adolescent, he sought comfort from his grandparents, he was subjected to the same distain.
As is so often the case, those experiences shaped his view of God and his view of any potential relationship with God. Intimacy of any kind came at enormous risk. He had no confidence that such a relationship was possible and as long as his understanding of God remained largely intellectual, the notion that God could be depended upon remained largely abstract.
To understand what God does in saying, “Father, forgive them for what they do,” as an enactment – as a new, fixed possibility is to discover that God is reliable in a way that was not visible to my friend. For him, an intimate relationship – even an intimate relationship with God – was a either an accident or a negotiation, if it was possible at all.
That realization, of course opens up the spiritual possibilities of our lives and alters our perception of the world around us. To think of forgiveness as something negotiated without that reassurance puts life on a knife’s edge and rests on calculations that are individual and performative. The questions that arise, as a result, focus on our own adequacy and the question of whether we can be forgiven.
By enacting the possibility of forgiveness, Jesus eliminates those concerns. There is no longer any question about the possibility. There is only the question of whether or not we will avail ourselves of God’s gracious offer. The parable of the prodigal underlines that truth. His offer to live in his father’s house as a slave suggests that he is still asking performative questions. He somehow needs to make himself acceptable, or if not, he must settle for some kind of accommodation. But the certainty of his father’s forgiveness – indeed, the largess of the homecoming he receives – lies in the nature of the father.
This is not a gift given to a chosen few. From time to time in the church’s history, we Christians may have said and done things that might have suggested that the path was closed to some, but it is not. It is a way out and a way forward, forged, once and for all, by the Triune God, who is love.[iv]
This realization grounds our confidence that we have been forgiven in a completely different way than the one that people sometimes imagine. If forgiveness were transactional and individual, then forgiveness would be something that rests on our effort. “Are there specific words I should use?” “Should I approach the appeal for forgiveness with a certain mindset?” That approach to the spiritual life is a knife’s edge, and it depends upon our efforts, our state of mind, our strength of resolve.
But Jesus does not leave us there, twisting in the wind, even as he hangs on the cross. “Father, forgive them for what they do.”
To read this story not just as the last, but as the first words of Jesus, is to realize that a new order has been inaugurated, and a new possibility has been written into the very fabric of human life in Jesus, the God-man. In Jerusalem’s Temple, forgiveness was secured through a cycle of rituals that restored conformity with the will of God to a form approximating that in heaven. With the words of Jesus, that possibility is embedded in his life, which embraces the divine and the human in perfect harmony, wedding the divine with the human and the human with the divine, restoring the intimacy between God and humankind that existed in the beginning of all things. We rejoice in that embodied possibility and, thanks to the redemptive work of Christ, we no longer face condemnation, and we no longer “have it coming.”
“Father, forgive them for what they do.”
Teach us to receive the promise of those words,
Free us from the guilt that enslaves us,
And the pride that drives us from your presence,
That we might receive the gift that You embody.
[i] Unforgiven, Directed by Clint Eastwood, Burbank: Malpaso Productions, 1992.
[ii] “Not only is it wonderful that he forgives our sins, but also that He neither uncovers them nor does He make them stand forth clearly revealed. Nor does He force us to come forward and publicly proclaim our misdeeds, but He bids us to make our defense to Him alone and to confess our sins to Him….God forgives our sins and does not force us to make a parade of them in the presence of others. He seeks one thing only: that he who benefits by the forgiveness may learn the greatness of the gift.” Paul W. Harkens, ed., St. John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions, Paul W. Harkens, trans., Ancient Christian Writers 31, Johannes Quasten and Walter J. Brughardt, eds. (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1963): 183.
[iii] John Wortley, trans., The Book of the Elders: Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Systematic Collection, Cistercian Studies Series 240 (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2012): 135.
[iv] As far as I can tell, I am on my own in this reading of the text’s theology. The approach that I take here to the “First Seven” words of Jesus is congruent with the early church’s approach, which sees Scripture as a window into the will and work of God. However, I cannot find a precedent for this reading of Luke 23:34 in patristic literature, the Middle Ages, or later, Protestant interpretation. The limited attention given to the passage may be traceable to the preference given Matthew and John in the literature of the early church, and clearly interpreters have also devoted more attention to the text critical evidence associated with the text and other issues. On which, see: Charles L. Griswold, David Konstan, eds., Ancient Forgiveness: Classical, Judaic, and Christian (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012): 160, 185, 240.
[v] This ancient understanding of salvation and healing can be traced back to Irenaeus of Lyons who, reflecting on God’s will for humankind observes: “By their continuing in being throughout a long course of ages, they shall receive a faculty of the Uncreated through the gratuitous bestowal of eternal existence upon them by God. … Now it was necessary that man should in the first instance be created; and having been created, should receive growth; and having received growth, should be strengthened; and having been strengthened, should abound; and having abounded, should recover [from the disease of sin]; and having recovered, should be glorified; and being glorified, should see his Lord.” IV.38.2.