Posted by: Fr Chris | March 29, 2010

Seven Last Words #2

Jesus is now on the Cross.  He has to push Himself up from the footrest to get enough air to say any of these “words”, which are the sentences recorded in the Four Gospels.  Thus each one takes not only physical effort, but costs Him energy, forces His tortured muscles to move, promotes more bleeding from the rough wood cutting into Him and from the spikes in His wrists, and the pain in His nailed feet must have been beyond awful each time He raises Himself with the foot muscles around the huge spike. Thus, the Church treasures each of these “words” as being supremely important.

” Father, forgive them: they do not know what they are doing.” the first of the 7 words is spoken when the soldiers are gambling for Jesus’clothing. But “they” includes not only those men, but the men who have put J on the cross. At the station where the weeping women meet Jesus, he ministers to them, and remarking about his own suffering, he says “If in the green wood, they do such things” he means the leadership. And so they encompasses both the soldiers and the leaders in this first word. No matter how much plotting, no matter how evil they were, they really did not appreciate God’s great goodness or his plan of salvation, so really they do not know what it is that they are actually doing. Interesting to note that some of the early Christian copyists do not accept this, and they drop the verse completely out of their editions of the gospel because they saw it as favoring the Jews!    Very odd since Jesus wants this prayer to be imitated by his disciples – he does not give the forgiveness, but asks the Father to forgive them.

In the Nag Hammadi scrolls, there is an account of the killing of St James, the first bishop of Jerusalem. James was the hero of the Jewish Christians, and there is a very stong tradition that he prayed for God’s mercy on his killer, in the spirit of Jesus His kinsman. And we find this in the bible among the Greek-speaking Christians: very quickly after Pentecost – when Stephen the deacon is being stoned to death, another horrible way to die, he prays for forgiveness of those doing the deed, after he sees the Son of Man, Jesus, at the right hand of God – in heaven, fully equal to God the Father.

A question the early Church had was,  should they forgive the Jews who were organizing persecutions against them in Roman cities, and who preached against Christianity in very strong language during the first 400 years of the Christian era. So, we have the scandal of some copyists dropping this sentence, so that their communities would not have to forgive the Jews around them as Jesus forgave the Jews around him. Fr Ramond Brown points out that over the long history since, the problem has been not the absence of this prayer from the old manuscripts, but rather the failure to incorporate forgiveness into the heart.

Ever since Jesus’ utterance, and Stephen’s and James’ – all martyrs try to imitate Our Lord on the Cross and extend forgiveness to their persecutors. People still find it remarkable to hear someone grant forgiveness in situations of incredible violence and terror. I know survivors from the Communist era who heard their priest-fathers forgive those who turned them in to the KGB and the prisons of Stalin: “if you don’t forgive”, one woman said,” the hate will eat you up from inside, a spiritual cancer.”

2. One of the criminals hanging there threw insults at him:

     "Aren't you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" The other
     one, however, rebuked him, saying: "Don't you fear God? Here
     we are all under the same sentence. Ours, however, is only
     right, for we are getting what we deserve for what we did;
     but he has done no wrong." And he said to Jesus, "Remember
     me, Jesus, when thou shalt come into thy kingdom." 
Jesus said to him, " Amen, Amen, I say to thee: this day, thou shalt
 be with me in Paradise.

The bible does not say that the two criminals crucified on either side of Jesus were thieves. Rather, they are bandits and wrongdoers – whatever they did, it was especially bad. That means that either they were large-scale robbers, like highwaymen who attacked caravans, or they were terrorists from the Zealot rebels who launched attacks against the Romans and supported various false Messiahs during the span of the first 150 years of the Christian era. We forget in worshipping the Prince of peace that Palestine was about as peaceful then as it is now – there were sporadic and sometimes very well-organized assaults against the Romans, which culminate in the prophecy of Jesus regarding the city of Jerusalem – its complete destruction and burial in the year 70, only 36 years after the death of our Lord. Jesus is mocked three times, but the mocking by the bandits is the shortest – they don’t have the air in their lungs to shout much!

Jesus is truly alone – even they reject him. BUT Jesus will show great mercy to the wrongdoer, the lawbreaker. Mocked without mercy, Jesus now shows mercy. He saves the other bandit by staying on the cross and entrusting himself to the Father. The eloquent lawbreaker recounts that they were sentenced justly – but Jesus is suffering wrongly. “He did nothing disorderly” – he knows of Jesus, and like the wife of Pilate knows that he is a just man. Even sinners and pagans know that – it is the self-righteous and arrogant who do not. And what does this eloquent thief say? It is a shocking sentence – he says ‘ JESUS” – the only man to address Jesus by name in ANY gospel – with no title, as  this is a sincere cry –” remember me ” – he trusts that Jesus has the authority to help him and he anticipates the invitation Jesus normally gave to sinners to repent. Jesus answers with AMEN twice! A most definite pronouncement from the king of all and a solid promise. Luke does not have any AMEN sayings – only HERE!

Divine graciousness beyond any human expectation! In Luke 11:9 Jesus said “Ask and it will be given” – the great merciful Jesus is going to indeed hear the prayer of this wretched sinner who asked to be remembered and Jesus says “thou shalt be with me this day”  – the day which is going to close so quickly after the 9th hour, 3 pm, the day of absolute salvation. Jesus gives deliverance, Jesus gives intimacy. Jesus makes him a disciple, that precious role.

And where will they be? In the presence of the absolute fullness of God. God exercises incredible graciousness thru the person of Jesus. How can Jesus grant such a thing to a sinner? But Jesus indeed came for that reason into the world – St Paul says, and this is echoed today in the Byzantine Rite before receiving Holy Communion – “to save sinners, of whom I am the first.”

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