This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Nashotah House on Good Friday 2016.
Famously, the last words of Jesus from the cross number seven. In these seven words, compiled from the four gospels, we find our Lord’s perfection manifest —
- as one who forgives his tormenting enemies: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
- as a fully human, suffering man: “I thirst.”
- as one who, despite his unspeakable anguish, cares for his mother: “Behold your son. Behold your mother.”
- as one even from the cross proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom to the penitent: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
- as one who bears an undeserved agony to make a way for the undeserved glory of others: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
- as one who trusts the Father even amid his apparent abandonment: “Father, into thy hand I commend my spirit.”
- as the one who glorifies his Father, bringing to perfection the work he is given to do: “It is finished.”
Quite rightly this perfect number of seven utterances is the stuff of celebrated music and drama. Quite rightly do we find in the exhaustion of our Savior an inexhaustible supply of virtue for our devotion.
It is less well known that these sayings almost numbered six rather than seven. The first of the sayings, from Luke’s Gospel, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” was once almost lost. We can guess — but we cannot know — why not a few early hand-written copies of the New Testament lack this saying, but they do.
Scribes who were saved by Jesus were sometimes eager to return the favor. Might the saying in which Jesus begs mercy on behalf of his executioners embarrass him in light of subsequent history? Had the desolation of Jerusalem convinced scribes that this prayer of Jesus had gone unanswered?
Or it could be that some zealously well-devoted scribes wanted to save Jesus by defending Jesus. Surely those who crucified our Lord are unworthy of God’s forgiveness. Surely there can be no mercy for the merciless, so they reason. And thus, like a sword-wielding Peter amputating a guard’s ear in defense of his Master, pen-wielding copyists save the Lord from his enemies by excising a saying unworthy of him.
We can only guess. We can’t know. But it just may be that the scribes who left this saying out didn’t want to save Jesus at all; perhaps they wanted to save themselves.
We might think we like a Jesus who cries out for the forgiveness of his torturers; we might suppose that a Jesus who forgives his tormentors is our kind of Jesus. But I wonder if we should believe ourselves. In the abstract, a gracious Jesus is all for the good. As long as he remains but an icon of goodness, we love a forgiving Jesus.
But if Jesus forgives his tormentors, it follows that we should forgive ours. And, if we rejoin that, thankfully, by comparison we have no real tormentors — only that we are surrounded by thoughtless, untrustworthy, and sometimes annoying people — that can only mean all the more that we ought to release others from the bondage of our pettiness.
The Lord’s word from the cross tells us that he finds nothing noble in the burden of offenses we have aggregated to ourselves and piously tolerated but left unforgiven. Our doing so has made us not one whit more righteous, but it has surely made us more intolerable in our self-styled martyrdom. One thing that can be said for certain of the “martyr complex” is that real martyrs don’t have it.
There is nothing noble in bearing that which our Lord has unyoked us from. At the very least, our Lord’s word from the cross reinforces his word from the Mount and from the Plain — that we express our forgiveness from God in our forgiveness of others.
But if in erasing the merciful words of our Lord on behalf of his opponents the scribes had hoped to save themselves from Jesus’ demand to forgive, that’s just the half of it. We can sympathize with these dear, faithful scribes trying to make sense of a Messiah who is crucified, who forgives his torturers.
After all, a Jesus who pleads for the forgiveness of his enemies from the cross is liable to succeed.
What if God the Father actually hears the plea of God the Son? The next thing you know we’ve got all manner of unwashed rabble taking place at table with good people like us in the kingdom of God. Oh, yes, of course, we might have seen this coming. We saw Jesus eating with sinner, tax-collector, and harlot. We saw him criticized for the company he kept and we saw him defend himself, rather ably. But at some point this has got to stop. Presumably even Jesus knows how to draw lines. At some point, enough is enough. And if there is anyone who should be excluded from the kingdom of God, it must include those who mocked and crucified him, right? And so perhaps the penmen of old reasoned: “if Jesus will not draw the line at these cruel mockers, these vile sadists, these reprobates — well, maybe it is our job to draw that line for him.” And they drew a line for Jesus by taking a line from Jesus.
But we might ask these ancient penmen who are copying this story a question we might ask ourselves. Do you not see yourself in this story?
We who claim loyalty to the apostles — or even succession from them — we most assuredly were not there when they crucified our Lord. We awoke from our shameful slumber in the hour of our Lord’s need, only to scatter shamelessly for our own self-protection. We left it to courageous women and recent devotees to witness the horror — while we hid and sketched plans for the rest of our Jesus-less career.
We who claim the primacy of Peter as the rock upon whom Christ’s church is founded — we denied the Lord as soon as his notoriety became our inconvenience.
And if we are a son of Adam, we have been asking for this since we were conceived in our mother’s womb. This is what we’ve been asking for — with every evil thought, with every selfish choice, with every lying word, with every thoughtless word, with every indulgence secured by a willful ignorance of those in want around us, with our every word of gossip, with every self-exalting boast.
Sons of Adam: We’ve been crying Crucify him! We’ve been asking for it.
The scribes who erased this saying were people like us, the very best kind of people, who wanted to save Jesus or save themselves. But it is a fool’s errand to save Jesus and hubris to save ourselves, when there is one who will save us from ourselves, in spite of ourselves.
This is why this, the first word of Jesus from the cross, will be our undoing if we think that Jesus became a supreme role model in uttering, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” Make no mistake about it, in all things — not least in his innocent suffering — the Lord Christ is our model “leaving us an example, that we should follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). Our example? Yes, to be sure.
But if in the uttering of this saying Jesus becomes our supreme role model only, we are not liberated but rather doomed by these same words. Yes, we too are to forgive our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us; we are to return good for evil and so be children of our Father in Heaven. But if these words be only to us and not for us, what hope have we?
When the Son begged the Father to forgive his foes in their ignorance, he begged not for their forgiveness only but for ours as well. He not only begged for their forgiveness; in bearing their assaults he becomes the means of our forgiveness.
The Son of Man pleading for mercy’s sake was the Son of God bleeding for mercy’s sake. Not just with words and not just as example did the Lord forgive, but with his body “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). While with his tongue the Suffering Servant made “intercession for transgressors” (Isa. 53:12), with torn flesh he made atonement for those who bruised him.
And so it is the Lord from the cross speaks the very words of the Psalmist — now more truly spoken than ever before. Drinking the bitter cup to the dregs: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1; Mark 15:34) So it is he bears in his very body the severe and righteous antipathy of a holy God toward sin. And at the same time he bears the unrighteous hostility of unholy men toward God: “The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell on me” (Ps. 69:9; Rom 15:3).
All at once, all the hatred of the cosmos — the holy hatred of God toward sin that defiles his good creation and the unholy hatred of rebellious humanity toward God and our fellows — all of it is borne in his body, and exhausted in his flesh, and extinguished in the corpse of the one who pled with his last breath for our forgiveness.
Thanks be to God for his unutterable gift! (2 Cor. 9:15)
 For a defense of the authenticity and discussion of the meaning of the saying, see Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 2 vols. (Doubleday, 1994), 2:971-81.
 The idea of a zealous scriptorium is at least an intriguing thought experiment!