it. We Might See God.
It was not what they expected. It was not what anyone expected. The smell of dirt and desert dust, mingled with the heat and sweat of hundreds of bystanders, the odor of blood and drear death—a commonplace scene for public games and crucifixions, but hardly the sights and smells of a king’s throne-room. And yet, amidst the horror of death a king beaten, weakened, and humiliated himself, held court. His first pronouncement must have seemed as ridiculous then as it does now. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Forgive them? Forgive those who had betrayed him, condemned him unjustly, mocked and derided him, and inflicted upon him the most excruciating pain that would end in his certain death?
The two men that were closest to him at that moment were two criminals: one on his right and one on his left. Both criminals heard those words, “Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing,” and after hearing them, they began to make their own request of this King of the Jews. The first man, embittered by his difficult struggle in life, mockingly requested that if Jesus was a King, he should save both himself and them. What he said was, “If you are the Messiah, save yourself and us!” But this is what he was really saying: “Get me out of this horrible experience. It’s unfair that I should be crucified and lose my life for having been caught in a crime. After all, I am what my miserable life has made me. If my life had been different, I could have been different. As it is, I’ve had to scratch and bite for everything in life. I’ve been used, abused, betrayed and taken advantage of. None of this is my fault. These people are to blame. They’ve never been fair–they’ve never cared for the likes of someone like me. And so, I’m hanging here and will die a pitiful, useless death. It’s not fair, damn it! If you think you’re so powerful, get me out of this!”
The other man quickly entered the conversation. He addressed his remarks to the other criminal who had just spoken. The Scripture reports that he said, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” But, what he was really saying was this: “We’re standing in the short, thin space between life and death. Between nothingness and eternity. This is not the time for blaming or demanding. This is not the time to proclaim lack of fairness, or to spit out anger and curses. We are guilty. We are dying. But this One here with us, this King, is without fault. This is the moment in which to recognize our need of mercy.” Then humbly addressing the King of the Jews he said,
Both men were guilty. Both stood in the breach between life and death. Both had heard words of forgiveness that could and would bridge the great chasm between the reality of life and the unknown territory of death. The first criminal was obviously angry, bitter and resentful. But the greatest tragedy was not his anger, bitterness and resentment. The greatest tragedy was that he had never known the freedom of forgiveness. He had not experienced the liberation of letting go. He clutched and grasped at life and the pain it had given him. And as he clutched he became enslaved, not by the unfairness of that life, but by his own unwillingness to forgive others and himself. He had no hell to fear after death. He had been in a living hell for years–choking on judgment and gasping for the air that could give him life. If only, if only, he would ‘let go.’
The other man too was guilty, but his guilt did not weigh him down. He had a simple and pure heart–a heart that had not grown bitter and hard from the pain he had known in life. He held no grudge and somehow he understood that there was more to his future than being a victim of the ignominious suffering of crucifixion. He could have been as angry, bitter and resentful as the other criminal, because it is probable that his life had been just as riddled with inequity. But there was one thing that set him apart from the other criminal. He did not hold himself or others in judgment. And because of this, his soul could perceive purity and innocence. And he saw the innocence of Jesus. And therefore, he pleaded for mercy from that innocent King.
Each and every one of us has been a victim of the inequity of life. We have all suffered pain and betrayal. Perhaps we were passed over for a job promotion, or were diagnosed with cancer. Perhaps our marriage is not fulfilling, or we’ve lost our lover. Perhaps our financial future is bleak, or our child has died, or we’ve lost someone or something near and dear to us. Life is not always kind and it is rarely fair.
It is all too easy to call to mind how we’ve been hurt and to feel anger at those who inflicted the hurt. It’s amazing how quickly we can condemn ourselves and others with the thickest and most unrelenting judgment. How often have we said the words, “I may forgive, but I can’t forget.”? I tell you this–and I want you to get this–those very words are the beginning of a nasty process that makes the heart grow as cold and hard as solid stone. If you say you forgive–then forgive. If you are willing to forgive, but are unwilling to forget, you have not truly forgiven. Forgiveness is ‘letting go’-- fully letting go---- completely letting go ------totally letting go. Holding nothing back. Just letting go.
“But, I don’t want to forget,” you say. There are two reasons why we don’t want to forget. First, we feel deep down that if we remember what has been done to us we will insure that those who hurt us will know how deeply we’ve been hurt. And somehow, this will be a way of ‘making them pay’ for what they did. Second, we believe that if we remember what has been done to us we will be putting a wall of protection around ourselves that will insulate us from further hurt. Both of these reasons are illusions. No payment for pain will be made by our constantly remembering the misdeed in our mind and heart. And remembering does not build a wall of protection. Remembering only causes us to add a thick, crusty layer over a heart that could know the freedom of flight if only it could fully forgive.
Take for example, the experience of the early desert fathers. A brother in Scetis had committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to him saying, “Come, for everyone is waiting for you.” So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug and filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said, “What is this, Father?” the old man said to them, “My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another?” When they heard that, they said no more to the brother who had sinned. Instead they forgave him.
What do you suppose would happen if we boldly let go of all that others have done and all that life has done to us–and, all that we have done to others and ourselves? We might shed all the layers of anger, bitterness and resentment that cover and cloud the beauty of our own soul. We might find that there is more to life than the pain that we have inflicted on others or that has been inflicted on us. We might see goodness growing and evil being driven away. Most importantly, we might see our heart becoming pure. And, Jesus said that when our heart becomes pure, we shall see God. Imagine it. We might see God. With our own eyes, we might see God. And in the space of a moment we would quietly sing,
Copyright 2004 Calvary Episcopal Church
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