In the first episode of the series, Archbishop Mark reflects on the Gospel of Luke as Jesus addresses his Father: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”.
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- Episode 1: Father, Forgive Them For They Know Not What They Do - Transcript
Episode 1: Father, Forgive Them For They Know Not What They Do - TranscriptAuthor: Archdiocese of Brisbane
Earlier this year, I was asked to offer a series of reflections for Holy Week, and I was happy to do it, but I wondered what I should do. I mean, there were all kinds of possibilities, obviously, for Holy Week, but eventually I decided to do something that had often played on my mind and attracted me, I suppose. And that was to study and then reflect upon the seven last words of Christ from the Cross.
Now, obviously, I wasn’t the first to turn my attention to those words that come to us from the four Gospels. All kinds of people have interpreted those words in all kinds of ways. Musically, there’s the famous setting of Haydn. But many, many others have written reflections upon, studies of, these remarkable seven last words of Christ. Each of them is short, but each of them, as I discovered more and more as I studied them in preparation for the reflections. Each of them is very, very deep and takes us deep into the scriptures.
So, in one sense, they’re short and simple, but in another sense, of course they have roots that go very, very deep. The devotion to these seven last words really has been promoted through the centuries by the Franciscans. And I suspect, without really being sure of this, but I suspect it has to do with Saint Francis in the church of San Damiano in Assisi. Where, you know the story, where he was praying in front of the crucifix there, the great painted crucifix, when the figure on the cross, the crucified Jesus spoke to Francis. And Francis heard Jesus say from the cross, rebuild my church.
And from that moment in one sense came the whole great tradition of the Franciscan rebuilding of the church that continues to this day. After Saint Francis himself, there was his successor Saint Bonaventure, a remarkable man in his own very different way. But he also sponsored the devotion and then beyond them, they, the Franciscans have continued that tradition, but it spread far and wide beyond the Franciscan family.
So, in these podcasts, what I want to do is to offer fairly brief reflections upon these seven last words of Jesus. The last words of famous people, it’s a whole genre. Goethe comes to mind the German poet who was lying on his deathbed, and his last words were ‘Mehr Licht!’. Which simply means ‘more light’. And they didn’t know whether he was calling for light or proclaiming a light that he saw as he died.
Raphael, the great painter when he was dying at the age of 36, simply spoke the one word ‘contento’, happy. Groucho Marx, it is said lying on his deathbed simply said, ‘this is no way to live’. And then died. Churchill, I read, says on his deathbed, his last words, ‘I’m bored with it all’. So off he went to something less boring. So, last words of famous people have stirred a kind of fascination.
Now, when I speak of the seven words of Jesus from the cross. In using the word ‘words’, I’m using a word that lies at the heart of the whole biblical tradition. Because if you think of the Ten Commandments in Hebrew, they’re not called the Ten Commandments. They’re called the Ten Words.
And this is because it looks back to the very beginning of the biblical story. Where God in creating speaks a word, says light, and there was light out of darkness. So, the all-creating word of God, which brings light from darkness. Is also the word, that becomes the ten words. That lead slaves from slavery to freedom. It’s the same as light coming from darkness.
So, these words of Jesus from the cross are not just empty words, they are in fact words of power. And I hope in these podcasts to be able to show you how that is true. In what I offer, we will be, as it were, ruminating upon these words, slowing it down. Scripture never rewards speed reading. You’ve got to ruminate, slow the reading process down, it’s a bit like a slow-motion replay with sport. Why do we watch a slow-motion replay? So that we can see and sense in greater detail what actually was happening.
So here we will ruminate or rummage through is another image that’s sometimes used. We will rummage through these words of Jesus in all their simplicity and profundity. So that we can see and hear better what is being communicated.
Above all, what we are seeking to do is to listen with new ears to these words of Jesus. And this word listening again takes us to the fountainhead of the biblical tradition. Because in the Old Testament, listen Israel, the Lord, your God is one, and so on. This is right at the heart of it all, listening to the voice of the God who speaks the word that brings light from darkness and slaves into freedom.
So, this will require a certain stillness, a certain silence of the heart. In order to hear not just to listen to me, but to listen to the voice of Jesus. And inevitably, as I offer these reflections, you will see and hear things that I don’t see and hear. So, I invite you to enter into that experience of listening as we set forth on this journey of exploration and I hope discovery.
Now, the question at this point, I think, as we begin is, who is on the cross? Now, that may seem a rather strange question. But it is a question that’s worth asking. Who is it on the cross? Well, it’s Jesus, of course, but is there more to be said?
Some years ago, I read a book that was very influential in my life, I have to say, and it was written by an English Benedictine by the name of Sebastian Moore. Whose name you may well know and whose works you may have read. The book that I read at the time was called ‘The Crucified Is No Stranger’. And it was a powerful experience for me for many reasons.
Moore prefaces this book with a poem written by a guy called Charles Causley. And the poem bears the title from a Normandy crucifix of 1632. So let me simply read to you this short poem. That Moore uses to preface the book, ‘The Crucified is No Stranger’.
I am the great sun, but you do not see me. I am your husband, but you turn away. I am the captive, but you do not free me. I am the captain, but you will not obey. I am the truth, but you will not believe me. I am the city where you will not stay. I am your wife, your child, but you will leave me. I am that God to whom you will not pray. I am your counsel, but you will not hear me. I am your lover, whom you will betray. I am the victor, but you do not cheer me. I am the holy dove whom you will slay. I am your life, but if you will not name me, seal up your soul with tears and never blame me.
So according to this poem of Charles Causley. The answer to the question, who is on the cross is much, much more complex than it seems to be. The crucified is no stranger because the crucified is here, there, and everywhere. But what is also true, is that you and I are the crucified. You and I, in fact, find our place within that poem, of Causley’s.
So, the crucified is not once upon a time. Not someone who is irredeemably other. The crucified is no stranger, because the crucified is overwhelmingly familiar. And the crucified is you. In that sense, our task as we listen or seek to listen to these words, seven last words of Jesus. Is to discover how these words are, in fact, my words or our words.
Because, you see, this is a time of crucifixion in many ways, some of them fairly obvious in the world. I mean, the whole crucifixion of COVID-19 as it unravels. It is a very intense and real experience. But in the church, too, there are many ways in which this is a moment of crucifixion. So, in such a moment, it perhaps becomes more important than ever. For us not only to listen to the words that Jesus speaks from the cross, but to discover those words as my words. And perhaps the words being spoken by many people who fill my life.
So let me turn then to the first of these seven words of the Lord from the cross. These are words that come to us from the Gospel of Luke. And here they are. ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’. I’ll read them again. ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’.
Now, the first thing to observe about these words is the extraordinary composure of Jesus in a moment of extraordinary agony. I mean, keep in mind that crucifixion was a most gruesome, atrocious form of execution. It was the cruellest form of execution known to the ancient world, really. Because it was so prolonged and ritualised through a whole process. Some of you would have seen the film of Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ. And there were many things about that film not to like, but there were one or two things that were very impressive. And one was the way in which Gibson evoked the whole process of ritual humiliation and exclusion. That accompanied the physical agony of crucifixion that climaxed in the moment of death on the cross.
So here is Jesus, a human being, not some kind of ghost, but a human being, in a moment of extraordinary agony. But extraordinarily composed. And what you find in Luke’s gospel, what I have just read. Contrasts with the figure of Jesus on the cross that you see in Mark’s gospel, for instance, where the impression we are given is that Mark’s Jesus dies screaming in the darkness. Absolutely not with Jesus here, who is incredibly composed on the cross. As he has been on the way to Calvary, where he stops to talk to the women of Jerusalem in Luke’s account and so on.
So, this is a figure of one who is absolutely not swept away by forces of violence that he neither understands nor controls. As you would expect, a man being crucified to have happen to him. Jesus is not swept away by such forces. But is in control. And as we will see, he is presented as a figure, even in a moment like this, who is as much in the know as he is in control. So, throughout the passion stories that are told in the four gospels. You see a Jesus who is in the know and in control in a moment when he should have been neither.
The other thing to note immediately is the way in which Jesus strikes a note of intimacy with the Father. Again, in a moment that may have seemed like a moment of utter abandonment. And Jesus will, in fact, cry out with words of seeming abandonment. And I underline the seeming later on, as we shall see. But here, in addressing God as Father. That note of intimacy, that sense that God has not abandoned Jesus even in this moment. On the contrary, and very mysteriously, Jesus is on the cross in obedience to the will of the one whom he calls Father.
Now, here the words touch upon something that is deeply, deeply paradoxical. And that is that Jesus on the cross experiences both the joy of union with the Father. But also, the agony, the sorrow, of the man being crucified. And this is something that you find in the Saints, particularly the mystics. That there’s a paradoxical, deeply mysterious combination of bliss and anguish in Jesus on the cross.
So, Catherine of Siena, for instance, speaks of how joy and suffering can be present together in holy souls. And she says this. Thus, the soul is blissful and afflicted, afflicted on account of the sins of its neighbour, blissful on account of the union and the affection of charity which it has inwardly received. These souls imitate the spotless Lamb on the cross, who was both blissful and afflicted. Thérèse of Lisieux is another who lived her agony in communion with the agony of Jesus. As she says, experiencing in herself the very paradox of Jesus’ own bliss and anguish.
So, the anguished human being on the cross, on the verge of death. Is still the son who is the second person of the Blessed Trinity. And who is still in the union with the Father, which is the source of a bliss and a joy that nothing can remove. And you see that mysterious combination. As he turns to the father in a moment like this.
He prays that those who have done him to death or are doing him to death be forgiven. And once he speaks of forgiveness, we are taken to the very heart of the witness of Jesus. You see, they couldn’t forgive him for forgiving. Because they said only God can do that, which is true.
But it was forgiveness that really led him to death. So that the heart of his mission, which is the forgiveness that in the end breaks the power of death. Becomes the heart of the problem that leads to his death.
And yet here, even in this extreme situation. He is still speaking of forgiveness. In a way that really does not make sense. And the forgiveness that is spoken from the cross is an unconditional forgiveness. It doesn’t matter what the human response is, the forgiveness is still given. Why? Because it’s simply who and how God is. God can’t not forgive.
So, in that sense, forgiveness never makes sense. And it makes less sense than ever when it’s spoken from the cross. But that word, forgive them, takes us not only to the heart of Jesus’ mission, throughout the years of his public ministry, but also to the heart of what his death actually means.
Why forgive them? Because they don’t know what they do. Now, this question of knowledge is crucial in the Bible. In the pagan world, the world of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’, the world of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ and so on. The prime difference between God and the human being is at the point of mortality. The gods live forever. The human being does not. But apart from that, the gods are just like us. They’re no better morally. They are full of all kinds of whims and caprices and moral flaws just like us. But they live forever. They are the immortals. But that’s not how the Bible understands the difference between God and the human being. For instance, if you go into the Garden of Eden in the Bible. You don’t find the one tree that you find everywhere else in similar stories in the ancient world. The tree of life. That’s very common, it’s almost everywhere in comparable stories.
In the Bible, you find two trees. You do find the tree of life. But the other tree that you find that’s a uniquely Hebrew planting is the tree of knowledge. In particular, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And it’s really the tree of knowledge that creates the problem. That really generates the biblical story. What God says is that if you touch the fruit of the tree of knowledge, in other words, if you decide for yourself what is good and evil rather than listening to God, so that God can tell you what is good and evil. Then your way to the tree of life will be blocked. You will die. You won’t get to the tree of life. If you tamper with the tree of knowledge.
So, the question of who knows what is always fundamental in the Scripture. God alone knows everything. And I said before that on the cross, even on the cross, Jesus is as much in the know as He is in control. Jesus always knows everything, is a given in New Testament narrative. And in the narrative of the Old Testament, God always knows everything, the human being does not. The task of the human being is to grow or come step by step towards the knowledge that God has. And God comes to our aid in that process through what we call revelation. God wants to share with us the knowledge that God has.
So that for instance, if you find on God’s lips in the Old Testament or the lips of Jesus in the New Testament, a question, it’s not because God or Jesus doesn’t know the answer. The problem is that we don’t know the answer. So, the question is a summons to the human being to come to share the knowledge that God already has. So that, for instance, the first question placed on the lips of God in the Bible is in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 3, Story of the Fall. Where God is walking in the garden in the cool of the evening, we’re told, and Adam and Eve are hiding from God. And so, God asks the question, where are you? Now, what’s the force of the question? It’s not God asking, which banana tree are you hiding behind? That’s not the point at all. It’s not a question about physical location. The question is more metaphysical. Where are you in the scheme of things human being, place yourself.
Because you see the catechesis of evil placed on the lips of the serpent. Says that you are either God or you’re nothing. If you are not God, and the serpent says you too can be God. But if you’re not God, then you’re nothing. So, I place yourself human being. Are you God or are you nothing? Or are you a human being, a creature, possessed however, of a unique and magnificent dignity as a co-creator with God.
Place yourself. Similarly in the story of Cain and Abel, first story of the human being outside the garden. God asks Cain, who’s just killed his brother. Where is your brother Abel? And again, it’s not about, where have you put the body. The question is, name your, what is your brother, who is your brother? And Cain thinks he’s being smart, saying, I do not know. But he’s speaking the truth. He doesn’t know. Because he doesn’t know that his brother is his brother. He asks the question, am I my brother’s keeper? The answer is, Cain no, you’re not. You are your brother’s brother. And that’s what Cain doesn’t know. And that’s what Cain has to come to understand and to know.
So, the question of who knows what, and we see it here from the cross. They know not. Well, they have to come to know the truth of what they do. And only forgiveness, the offer of forgiveness accepted. By those who put Jesus to death will lead them to the knowledge which Jesus and God already has.
The other thing that is raised at this point, is the whole question of sin without knowing. Now, this again touches into mystery. There is a sin of which we are conscious, all of us. But there can be a sin without us knowing about it. It can be like a kind of miasma that we imbibe or a kind of acid rain that falls upon us. Without us realising that that’s what is happening. Psalm 19 says, who can detect their errors from hidden faults, acquit me. These are, again, the words of the Psalm. So, repentance in these terms. Means to come to a knowledge of the sin that lays hold of me. And of which I can become an agent without realising it. To come to see that. And then to open to forgiveness.
So, sin in that sense can be pre personal, a cosmic power, a capital ‘S’ sin. That lays hold of me in ways I do not know. Racism, I think is a classic case of this. But there are many others. So again, sin is a vaster, more mysterious reality than we normally recognise.
So, there is the first of our seven words. ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’. Bring them to know what they don’t know now. And once they come to knowledge, forgive them. So that then they will come to know not only what they have done, but what God has done in the death of Jesus.