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And He Never Said a Mumbalin’ Word

November 21, 2016

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Reign of Christ Sunday, November 20, 2016. The sermon was written by The Rev. Noelle Damico as a meditation for Good Friday in 2003, but is as relevant today as it was then. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

Luke 23:32-38

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”  This first word of Jesus from the cross is a word of compassion and of comfort.  They who crucified Jesus did not know what they were doing.  And we, two-thousand years later, who read this in worship or ritually participate each Good Friday in the crucifixion narrative, hear these words with relief.  They are a salve upon the ragged cry that we raise in the hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus”, “’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied You; I crucified You.”  We don’t know what we are doing either.  It is reassuring to have this first word of Jesus from the cross.  It makes bearable the unbearable.  It makes it possible for us to continue on, chastened, but helpless through this troubled world.  “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

But it was likely never spoken.  This “first word” of Jesus, is a highly disputed verse – many ancient manuscripts actually lack this verse entirely.  In fact in the New Revised Standard Version, this phrase is in brackets to indicate just how questionable it is.  Further, our gospels creatively stage the drama of the crucifixion decades after it happened – the gospel writers are not reporting “live from Golgatha.”  It is more likely that, Jesus’ crucifixion took place like the African American Spiritual, “They crucified my Lord, and He never said a mumbalin’ word.  Not a word.  Not a word, not a word, not a word.”

How might it change this story for us if Jesus said, “not a word?”

For the way we typically receive this first word “forgive them; they do not know what they are doing” allows us to pretend that we are little children, sinning by foolishness or by mistake or by the unintended consequences of our noble actions.  It makes us helpless sinners who don’t know any better and can’t do any better, even with God’s forgiveness.  We’re hopeless cases you and I.  We keep on sinning and God keeps on forgiving.  It’s the best we can expect in this crazy, mixed up world.  But such an understanding of sin and forgiveness runs completely counter to the entire ministry of Jesus.

First, Jesus didn’t walk around meek and mild, forgiving people right and left.  Jesus confronted the religious leaders of his day vituperously accusing them of seizing the property and livelihood of the poor for the temple.  Just two chapters earlier in Luke we read, “In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets.  They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.  They will receive the greater condemnation.  Jesus looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; and he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins” (Lk 20:45-42).

Jesus confronted the authority of the Roman Empire as well.  Jerusalem and all of Palestine was under the control of the Empire that had violently subdued the Jewish people living there; thousands were slaughtered, thousands were enslaved, thousands were crucified.  Pilate was installed by Rome as governor of Judea and charged with “keeping the peace” by the Emperor.  Luke, in the verses just before our reading, describes how the assembly of the elders of the people the chief priests and the scribes brought Jesus before Pilate saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” (Luke 23:2).  Pilate asks him “Are you the king of the Jews” – in other words, are you setting yourself up as King of this subdued and conquered people, and threatening allegiance to the Emperor?  Jesus says “You say so.”

Jesus’ confrontation continues beyond his sentencing and even after his flogging.  On the road to his own crucifixion, Jesus calls out to the crowds, to women who were mourning publicly saying, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.”

If we read the narrative that leads us to the crucifixion in the gospel of Luke, we do not find Jesus forgiving or showing mercy toward the religious and political authorities who colluded to crucify him, or to the energized mob in their uncritical furor.  Instead, we find him turning over tables in the temple, predicting the overthrow of Jerusalem by armies, and refusing to give an inch to the Romans or the Religious leaders.  Now this is not to say that Jesus did not show mercy in his ministry.  In fact his three year ministry was all about mercy.  But mercy to whom?  To the poor, to the excluded, to the beaten down. Jesus did bless those who were poor, comfort those who were grieving, forgive and heal those who were sick, and welcome those who were excluded by religious and cultural practices whether they were prostitutes, tax-collectors, lepers or children.  But Jesus never forgave the Roman Empire or offered mercy to the religious authorities who hounded him and his disciples.  To them he had harsh words of condemnation.

So it strains credulity that with his first breath, upon being crucified as an enemy of the state, he would say “Father; forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”  For he knew that they knew exactly what they were doing.

And the corollary of this is, of course, that we know what we’re doing as well.

Is the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion simply that confused people, thousands of years ago, accidentally crucified God?  Is that what is so terrible and so shocking?  Is that what we, by extension, need forgiveness for?   No.

In Jesus, God became human, walked among us, observing the covenant God established with Abraham and continued with Moses, and the prophets, and he was crucified for that.  Not for being “God” in some abstract metaphysical sense, but for acting as God in the world – acting as God commanded us to act in the world — for that is a true threat to the powers and principalities.

Jesus stirred up the poor and the powerless to live with him in ways that challenged reigning social, economic and religious assumptions and injustices.  Jesus publicly confronted political and religious authorities that oppressed the people – even when they did so for patriotic or pious reasons, and he did so in the name of God and was hailed as King.  And that’s why he was crucified.  The religious authorities and the Romans knew exactly what they were doing.  And the crowd was easily inflamed.  And the soldiers, well, they just did their duty.

The terrible and shocking thing of Jesus’ crucifixion is that it was so ordinary.  Rome crucified thousands upon thousands of people.  It was the world working as our world works every day.  And it is for this that we seek forgiveness.  But Jesus?  He never said a mumbalin’ word.  Not a word.  Not a word.

By God becoming Human, living among us and being killed by us, God has laid down the ultimate challenge before us.  We have seen our own power.  We can no longer claim ignorance or innocence.  We have a choice to make.  Will we continue with our lives as usual, or will we, like Jesus, nonviolently and tenaciously confront the powers of our day that continue to exploit, demean, and crucify?   

Perhaps what we most need to hear from the cross is this silence, for this silence allows us to see the truth of our situation, of our complicity and of our responsibility for change.  It is an urgent silence.  And it is we, not Jesus, who are the ones who must break that silence; and in so doing, find forgiveness.  Amen.

© 2003, The Rev. Noelle Damico

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