The Lichfield Diocesan Clergy Conference (or, as my 14-year-old son renamed it, VicarCon) has as its theme this year ‘Reconciliation’ and we’ve had two very challenging and thought-provoking talks from Stephen Cherry on ‘Forgiveness’. He mentioned Lk 23:34, where Jesus prays for those who crucify him, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’. In particular, he mentioned that this is one of the few verses in the New Testament where we’re really not sure, on the basis of the manuscripts we have, whether it’s in the original version or added a bit later.
On one level, it doesn’t matter – it’s in the gospel as we have it and as the church declared it to be part of the New Testament. But it does feel as though it matters, especially because this is such a powerful moment in the story of the crucifxion. It’s also an event I’ve brought up many times with people who feel that they’ve done something for which they can’t or shouldn’t be forgiven by God.
Having looked the verse up in a few commentaries, I do think it’s original – and that for various reasons people left it out of some early manuscripts. After all, there were probably plenty of people in the early church finding it difficult to forgive the authorities for their own sufferings, and they may have felt that this was taking mercy a bit too far!
More deeply, Stephen Cherry (accepting this verse as an authentic saying of Jesus, even if it isn’t Luke after all) pointed to some key things that come out of it.
- Forgiveness isn’t cheap. It is only real where there is real offence and suffering caused, and where the one injured chooses forgiveness.
- Forgiveness isn’t pretence – acting as though something doesn’t matter.
- Forgiveness comes from the depth of being. These words from Jesus are not part of his ‘ministry’ or some obligation, but come from the heart of his suffering.
- Forgiveness may be something for which we’re not yet ready. Jesus doesn’t say to his executioners ‘I forgive you’. He prays that the Father will forgive them.
Forgiveness isn’t easy, but it is at the heart of Christian life and discipleship. It’s not about turning a blind eye to what’s wrong. It follows on from recognition of sin, and a willingness to change.
There’s one more thing which Stephen Cherry said about this moment in the Passion which stays with me strongly. Too often this verse is used to tell people who’ve suffered at the hands of others that they have a duty to forgive – sometimes without any hint of recognition or repentance from the one who’s injured them.
This verse tells of a remarkable, extreme and extraordinary forgiveness, where the one perfect human being prays that his Father will forgive those who, perhaps, he cannot yet forgive. It’s as far as forgiveness can go – not a standard benchmark that those who have suffered at the hands of others can or should be expected to measure up to.
Forgiveness does help to bring healing – but it can’t be rushed. It does help those who have suffered to find freedom – but it can’t be forced, even by those who try to forgive.
Forgiveness comes as part of God’s intervention in the mess of our lives; and it comes from a God who knows what it means to forgive those who sin against us.