Luke 23. 1-49
LUKE’S GOSPEL is good news for those who feel bad. His narrative is crowded with characters who are ashamed of themselves. There is the weeping sex worker (Luke 7.36-50); Zacchaeus hiding in his tree (Luke 19.1-10); and the spendthrift son (Luke 15.11-32). These, and others like them, the least deserving and the last you’d expect, discover that they have been loved all along.
Last in Luke’s long gallery of cameo studies of those who have lost all hope for themselves is the "penitent thief", crucified alongside Jesus. About to die, he has no time left to put his house in order or to make any reparation to those he has injured. Yet, when he asks to be remembered, he is promised paradise. Heaven is promised to the undeserving. That promise is our only hope.
But just a moment: there is someone else there who is still less deserving. Perhaps it’s because I think that Carol Reed’s The Third Man is the greatest film ever made that I am fascinated by "the third man" in our story, the criminal who doesn’t ask to be remembered.
He, too, turns to Jesus and, in his own bitter and sarcastic way, prays to him. I identify with the third man, for I, too, have said to Jesus: "If you are who you claim to be, then, for all our sake’s, do something!" Is there any hope for him? Is there any hope for others of us whose prayers are sometimes as angry and impious as his?
If the penitent thief was promised paradise because he was penitent, then there’s no hope for the impenitent. You don’t need a degree in theology to work that out. But, if he is promised paradise, as Luke seems to believe, because God accepts the least deserving, then there’s a glimmer of hope for the impenitent thief, too — and for me. If God’s grace, displayed on Christ’s cross, is truly for the last ones you’d expect, if it is not conditional on the quality of my contrition, then there is reason for me not to despair.
It all depends on how we understand forgiveness. The dying Voltaire is famously reported to have said: "God will forgive. It’s his job." That is not how Luke sees the divine mercy made crucified flesh. Voltaire’s remark takes account neither of what forgiveness costs, nor what forgiveness demands.
It is far easier to discuss God’s forgiveness than to offer forgiveness ourselves. We still need to ponder what the Revd Julie Nicholson, a Church of England priest, said in the aftermath of the 7 July bombings in London in 2005, in which her daughter was killed. She told us that she found more comfort in literature than in liturgy.
She sent us to back to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, to a passage we must always turn to when we are minded to chatter lightly about forgiveness — perhaps, from a pulpit this Good Friday, with the manuscript of our meditation resting softly on its cushion. Ivan Karamazov puts to his devout brother, Alyosha, the case of the sadistic landowner who throws the child of one of his serfs to his dogs. "I don’t want the child’s mother to embrace the torturer. . . The sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive."
Already, from the cross, Jesus has sought forgiveness for the undeserving. He has prayed: "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." Some early Greek texts do not have these words. But the words must belong to the earliest tradition of the sayings of Jesus, not only because they are in tune with the whole tenor of Luke’s theology, but also because it is inconceivable that such a prayer was made up.
Why did those early Christian editors leave it out? Better to ask why we might have left it out; why we might have preferred this word from the cross unsaid. Perhaps this prayer troubles us for the same reason that we find another prayer sticking in our throat. "As we forgive . . ." as we say — as we find it so hard to say.
"Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." Whatever Jesus went through, at the end he found his Father there. Alexander Solzhenitsyn writes of his experience as a prisoner in a Soviet labour camp. He tells how everything that normally gives life meaning was taken from him. He was robbed of his name, and was known only by a number. Close to starving, he was made to work as a slave. He was forbidden books or letters. He was stripped of all that lends a human being dignity and hope. Solzhenitsyn tells how he was brought, as it were, to the bottom of an abyss. Then he adds: "I felt it firm under my feet."
"If I make my bed in hell," says the psalmist, "behold, thou art there" (Psalm 139.8). That was Christ’s journey, his inner crucifixion. So he finds, as have countless of his crucified disciples across the centuries since, that the ground of being is firm beneath him; that "underneath are the everlasting arms."
The servant of the LORD said:
4The Lord GOD has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens –
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
5The Lord GOD has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backwards.
6I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
7The Lord GOD helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
8he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
9It is the Lord GOD who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
All of them will wear out like a garment;
the moth will eat them up.
5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death –
even death on a cross.
9Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
24A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. 27For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
31Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, 32but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ 33And he said to him, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!’ 34Jesus said, ‘I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.’
39He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. 40When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ 41Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, 42‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ 43Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. 44In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. 45When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, 46and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’
54Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. 55When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. 56Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, ‘This man also was with him.’ 57But he denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know him.’ 58A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, ‘You also are one of them.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I am not!’ 59Then about an hour later still another kept insisting, ‘Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.’ 60But Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about!’ At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. 61The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ 62And he went out and wept bitterly.
66When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, gathered together, and they brought him to their council. 67They said, ‘If you are the Messiah, tell us.’ He replied, ‘If I tell you, you will not believe; 68and if I question you, you will not answer. 69But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.’ 70All of them asked, ‘Are you, then, the Son of God?’ He said to them, ‘You say that I am.’ 71Then they said, ‘What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips!’
6When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. 7And when he learned that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. 8When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign. 9He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate. 12That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.
18Then they all shouted out together, ‘Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!’ 19(This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) 20Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; 21but they kept shouting, ‘Crucify, crucify him!’ 22A third time he said to them, ‘Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.’ 23But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. 24So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. 25He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.
32Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ 38There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
44It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last. 47When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent.’ 48And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. 49But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.