Friday, September 18, 2009

Forgive Them, Father

Most folks who spend a great deal of time with the Bible come to have preferred books within it, a writer or prophet or poet whose expression of the story of our faith speaks most deeply to them. We'll also have verses...little snippets or soundbites...that tend to stick with us and resonate with us most intensely.

For me, one of those verses is from the Gospel of Luke, chapter twenty three, verse thirty four. It's from a particularly intense part of the story of Jesus of Nazareth. He's being crucified, and what we hear from him during that moment of physical anguish is this:
Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."[a] And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
This verse, more than perhaps any other in the Bible, cements my conviction that Jesus is worth following. He's preached about the ethic of reconciling love...and he means it, to the point at which he is willing to ask God to forgive the people who are torturing him to death. There is a nobility and an integrity and a grace to that moment in the story of Jesus that I find utterly compelling.

But there's a little problem. There's a footnote. See it? Click on it if you like. The first sentence of this verse is...disputed...among the earliest Greek manuscripts of Luke. Some have it. Some don't. The ancient witness is not consistent, and there is no clear majority of accounts. So how do we decide which manuscripts are accurate? Did that phrase get inadvertently inserted? Did one set of manuscripts just neglect to include it? Or was it part of the original story, which some manuscripts deleted on purpose?

I tend to favor the last one, for three reasons.

First, the forgiveness Jesus offers just plain works with the heart of his teachings. It fits. It belongs, particularly in the context of the story Luke tells about Jesus. The man who Luke describes believed passionately in the transforming power of forgiveness, and also taught that our ability to show grace sets the foundation for how we ourselves are to stand before God.

Second, it gets worked into Luke's story of the early church. Where? We find Christ's words of forgiveness mirrored in the Acts of the Apostles, which we should all know...part two of the the Gospel of Luke. When a mob sets in to killing Stephen, one of the first Jesus followers to die for his faith, Stephen echoes the words of Christ, asking that God not hold his murder against those who were killing him. This is a non-random thing. Luke/Acts is an intentionally crafted narrative compiled by a talented storyteller, in which themes and elements are included to provide us with a cohesive understanding of both Christ's teachings and the nature of the early church. Christ died with words of forgiveness on his lips, and Stephen shares the same Spirit and acts in the same way. We are meant to see the connection.

Third, I think the exclusion may have been intentional scribal editing. It is too consistent, and occurs not just in one but in several variant manuscripts. Why would a scribe delete this intense, poignant moment? Because I think..quite frankly...that this depth of grace can seem intimidating or threatening to us. If Christ is extending prayers of forgiveness to those who are killing him, where are those neat and tidy boundaries of grace that make us feel so good about ourselves? How can we get permission we want to turn up our noses at the people we just know must be going to hell? How can Jesus make us look stupid by forgiving people who..glurk...probably weren't even Christian?

We've been misunderstanding the Gospel since the moment we started writing it down. Fortunately, it's still there, witnessing to us and showing us grace that is so immense it can trouble our hearts.