When I was a twenty-one year old college student I remember driving my old station wagon one perfect spring afternoon and a song came on the radio that caught my attention, “The Heart of the Matter” by Don Henley—former drummer and vocalist of The Eagles—in which he sings:
These times are so uncertain
There’s a yearning undefined
And people filled with rage
We all need a little tenderness
How can love survive in such a graceless age?…
I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter…
I think it’s about forgiveness, forgiveness
On this Palm Sunday we read Luke’s account of Jesus’ passion and death.
As Jesus suffered, there are several things he said that only Luke records. Today I am preaching on one of these—“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
More than the other gospel writers, Luke emphasizes the forgiveness of God.
Luke is the only one who records the account of a notoriously sinful woman bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears, during which Jesus tells the indignant onlookers, “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven” (Luke 7:36-50).
Luke is the only one who records Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector who come into the temple. The Pharisee overflows with self-righteousness while the tax collector, who can’t even raise his face, asks for mercy. Jesus tells us that the tax collector, not the Pharisee, walks out of the temple forgiven (Luke 18:9-14).
Luke is the only one who records Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son that Paul preached about two weeks ago, a parable that demonstrates the overflowing forgiveness of God to those who have squandered everything and made a train wreck of their lives (Luke 15:11-32).
So it makes sense that Luke is the only one who records the words Jesus said immediately after nails were driven through his wrists and feet—“Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
When it comes to why Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died on the cross, the heart of the matter is indeed forgiveness.
To forgive others means to grant them pardon, to absolve them, to release them from debt, to let them off the hook.
Scripture includes some powerful metaphors or pictures of what it looks like when God forgives us of our sins:
In Psalms we read that God has removed our sins from us “as far as the east is from the west” (103:12).
The Old Testament prophet Isaiah assures us that although our sins make us as red as crimson, God’s forgiveness makes us as white as snow (1:18) and that God has cast all our sins behind his back (38:17).
Another Old Testament prophet, Micah, tells us that God tramples our sins underfoot and casts them into the “depths of the sea” (7:19).
To forgive others also means to cease feeling resentment toward them.
This is where the rubber meets the road for most of us when it comes to forgiveness or the lack thereof. And yet scripture tells us that “love is not resentful” (1 Corinthians 13:5, NRSV)—or in other words, “love keeps no record of wrongs” (NIV).
Who do you resent? Who do you suspect resents you?
Sometimes husbands and wives resent each other, keeping mental logs of all the ways they have hurt each other or let each other down.
Sometimes parents and kids resent one another. I heard a comedian once quip, “If I don’t have children, then thirty years from now who will be around to resent me?”
Resentment is everywhere—at school (“She’s such a teacher’s pet”) or on sports teams (“She’s such a ball hog”) or in bands (“He’s such a prima donna!”) or at the workplace (“He’s such a kiss-up!”).
But love is not resentful. Love keeps no record of wrongs.
There are all sorts of records that are kept about us—school records, driving records (please don’t check mine ☺), employment records, tax records, credit records, on and on.
One organization famous for their meticulous record keeping is the FBI, which, as you may know, has a record of nearly 4,000 pages just in their file on Eleanor Roosevelt, who was not exactly a notorious criminal. And yet, in our hearts we often keep a record of wrongs about others that would dwarf even Eleanor Roosevelt’s FBI file.
But God is not resentful toward you. God keeps no record of your wrongs.
In his classic book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning recounts the true story of a Catholic woman who had reportedly had visions of Jesus. The local bishop got wind of this and set up a meeting with her.
“Is it true, ma’am, that you have visions of Jesus?” he asked. Yes. “Well, the next time you have a vision, I want you to ask Jesus to tell you the sins that I confessed in my last confession.”
The woman was stunned. Did I hear you right, bishop? You actually want me to ask Jesus to tell me the sins of your past? “Exactly. Please call if anything happens.”
Ten days later the archbishop heard back from this lady, and he said to her, “Did you do what I asked?” Yes, bishop, I asked Jesus to tell me the sins you confessed in your last confession. The bishop leaned forward with anticipation. His eyes narrowed. “What did Jesus say?” Bishop, she replied, these are his exact words…I can’t remember.
Manning concludes, “Christianity happens when men and women accept with unwavering trust that their sins have not only been forgiven but forgotten, washed away in the blood of the Lamb” (The Ragamuffin Gospel, p. 118-119).
God keeps no record of your wrongs.
But perhaps you keep a record of your wrongs.
This is not uncommon, as the local band Sons of Bill sing, “God forgives you for all that you’ve done, but it’s forgiving yourself that’s the hardest of all’” (“Metaphysical Gingham Gown” from the 2006 album A Far Cry from Freedom).
In 1997, Mitch Albom published his powerful book, Tuesdays with Morrie. Mitch had attended Brandeis University and had been particularly influenced by a sociology professor named Morrie Schwartz. Many years later Mitch, who was living in Detroit at the time, got word that Morrie was dying of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). For fourteen straight weeks, Mitch flew to Massachusetts every Tuesday and spent the afternoon with his dying friend. On the twelfth Tuesday, just a couple weeks before he died, Morrie spoke to Mitch about the heart of the matter:
“Forgive yourself before you die. Then forgive others… It’s not just other people we need to forgive, Mitch. We also need to forgive ourselves… for all the things we didn’t do. All the things we should have done. You can’t get stuck on the regrets of what should have happened. That doesn’t help you when you get to where I am. I always wished I had done more with my work; I wished I had written more books. I used to beat myself up over it. Now I see that never did any good… Forgive yourself. Forgive others. Don’t wait, Mitch. Not everyone gets the time I’m getting. Not everyone is as lucky” (p. 164-167).
Jesus suffered at the hands of people “filled with rage” at a time not unlike our own, often a “graceless age.” And as he suffered Jesus prayed one final prayer to his Heavenly Father, a prayer for the religious leaders who sold him out, a prayer for the Roman soldiers who beat him and nailed him to a cross… and a prayer for you… “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
And guess what?
God answered the prayer of his Beloved Son.
In Jesus’ death on the cross God has forgiven you, removed your sins from you “as far as the east is from the west,” made you as white as snow, trampled down your sins underfoot and cast them into the sea.
In Jesus’ death on the cross God has forgiven you. God has granted you pardon. God has absolved you. God has released you from the debt of your sins. God has let you off the hook. God has erased any record of your wrongs. God has washed your sins away with the blood of the Lamb.
Forgiveness is indeed the heart of the matter—and the good news of the gospel is that in Jesus’ death on the cross you have been forgiven.
The seventeenth century Anglican priest and poet John Donne masterfully described this in his poem “A Hymn to God the Father.” I’ll close with this:
Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.
- Luke 23:34