The old man and the cats…

“The Savior and the Rogue.”

(First edition of Flashman in the Great Game, referred to below)

To be clear, this *is* a sermon, but not a current one; it’s one I wrote for Good Friday 2018, and, as I was researching what I have previously said on All Saints Day, stumbled on this sermon, which I think deserves to be reissued here.

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” 

Just what was it that they didn’t know?

It’s a public execution, a common event in the ancient world—and actually common into the early Twentieth Century in America; the last public execution in America was in 1936, only three years before my father was born. There are multiple criminals to die—at least three, including Jesus, Roman centurions and Temple leaders authorities to mock the condemned, and the carnival atmosphere of cruelty is strong.

This saying of Jesus’s, on the surface so typical of him, is missing in some of the earliest manuscripts of Luke’s Gospel, and that lets interpreters off the hook—they cut it and don’t address it, like Joseph Fitzmyer in his two massive volumes on Luke in The Anchor Bible Series series, or just mention it’s not clearly authentic, like the editors of The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and still don’t discuss it.  

In the 12 volume The Interpreter’s Bible, the preacher’s friend from 1952, the editors admit that they aren’t sure it’s authentic, wonder just who is being forgiven, anyway, and fondly picture the scribe who created what they call “one of the most typically Christian utterances credited to Jesus in the gospel tradition.”[1] 

I suppose it’s better than the older theology, from the Church Fathers until the 19th Century, that claims that the whole point of Jesus’s forgiveness is that all concerned—from Judas, the Sanhedrin, and Herod through Pilate and the centurions, are committing the terrible sin of slaying the Son of God, killing the Incarnated Lord, and so Jesus’s forgiveness is of the very specific crime of deicide. A crime of rebellion. Of disobedience to the cosmic order. The worst kind of blasphemy.

But for that blasphemy, that rebellion, the older theology tells us, Golgatha is not problematic. Even the repentant thief seven verses later in this same chapter of Luke’s Gospel says “we are getting what we deserve for our deeds.”[2]  

And there’s the problem.  

Since so many commenters prefer to dismiss this, the first of the Seven Last Words, as pure legend—as fiction—let me help explain why I believe it is true and prophetic in every sense by using an actual fiction, a novel written by George MacDonald Fraser.  

This fiction is about a very bad man: a bully, a coward, a selfish man who drifts into the British Army in the Nineteenth Century, and, because he’s both clever and lucky, rises to the rank of Colonel. He’s sent undercover during the Indian Mutiny in 1858, and finds himself stuck in a battle he’s hoped to avoid. He’s knocked unconscious, and, when he wakes up, he finds himself tied to a cannon, the muzzle at his back, just like the actual native soldiers who no longer wanted to serve the British, and tried to rebel, and lost the battle. He can’t even call out for help, because he’s gagged.  

But this bad man manages to keep his wits, and winks at the soldier who’s about to light the fuse and execute him until the gag is removed, and he proves to the Captain who won the battle that he is a British officer.

And then he does a very strange thing, for him. As he’s gasping with relief, he sees the lines of mutineers (as the British called them) tied to cannons, all about to be horribly executed on the Captain’s order. And this bad, selfish man takes command. He is a Colonel, after all, and he orders the Captain to “cut ‘em all loose, and tell ‘em to run away, away as far as they know how—away from us—and never to get caught again.”[3] 

He’s had enough, and even this bad man—and he is a very bad man—has his limits, on this day at what was very nearly his Golgatha.

And if even so bad a man as our Colonel would be moved to compassion by his Golgatha experience, I simply cannot believe, will not believe, that Jesus of Nazareth was forgiving his killers solely for their unknowing crime of murdering the Messiah.  

I can’t imagine that, if Pilate suddenly listened to his own conscience and his wife’s dread, and sent men to prevent Jesus from being nailed to the Cross, that he would walk away, satisfied that justice had been done.

Even more than our bad Colonel, Jesus would have looked around him, seen the victims about to be put to a long slow death, watched the mocking, laughing, faces in the crowd, and prayed, just as he in fact did, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.“ 

Because they didn’t.  

They couldn’t.  

They’d been conditioned, like lab rats in a terrible experiment to believe that the cruelty surrounding them all was normal, was good. That it was all right to enjoy the sufferings of the condemned, to revel in them, in fact.  

No—not like rats. Like the people in the Milgram Experiment, who are told by a “teacher” that they are required to test a student, and press a button that shocks the student whenever he or she gets an answer wrong. The tester is told that the shock increases every time a button is pushed, and that the shocks go from 15 volts, a minor shock, to a danger level of 450 volts. The so-called teacher stays with the tester, and at each mistake, would urge the admission of the higher shock.  

All of the testers pressed the buttons to administer shocks up to 350 volts, and two thirds pressed the button labeled “Danger—severe shock.” 

For all too many people, cruelty is acceptable if it’s required or even just encouraged by authority figures. If they give us permission to do it over time, it’s not just acceptable, it can be done light-heartedly, like the pictures from Abu Graib of American soldiers grinning and giving a thumbs up sign as they pose with a pile of naked Iraqi prisoners, or the infamous photo of one of those soldiers, Lynndie England, dragging a prone naked man on a leash.  

Or less than a year ago, Americans marching under Nazi flags, and Confederate flags, in Charlottesville, and one driving a car into a crowd of peaceful protesters that same day, hurting many, and killing a 32 year old woman named Heather Heyer. 

Mark Heyer, confronted with unbearable grief and loss, forgave his daughter’s murderer, saying “he don’t know no better.” He added, “I just think what the Lord said on the cross. Lord forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”[4] 

And neither do we.

We walk by the poor and hungry, and turn an uneasy eye away from them.  

We know not what we do.

We read about the mistreatment of women in the streets, in the workplace, and dismiss it with a “well, is it really so serious?”

We know not what we do.

We are so numbed by the shooting of children in our schools—more than one a week so far this year—that only when the students themselves mobilize and march for their lives, does the numbness begin to wear off, a little.

We know not what we do.

We buy our wonderful electronic devices, only to read by their light that they were made with slave labor—and it’s time for an upgrade, so we go out and buy more.

We know not what we do.

We acquiesce in the continuation of systemic prejudice against people of color, and watch in silence as schemes unfold throughout the nation to make it harder for them to vote, as they are sentenced disparately in the courtrooms.

We know not what we do.

Jesus’s forgiveness is not just for his executioners.  

It’s for us. And we need it.

In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

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