Friday, March 29, 2013

Know Not

"Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."

He could have been talking about the disciples.  How often, in the gospel narratives, are the disciples depicted as numbskulls who can’t seem to get anything right?  Jesus tells them to keep awake; they fall asleep.  Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him three times before the cock crows, and somehow Peter is shocked when the cock crows and, sure enough, he has denied Jesus three times.  It is a stark juxtaposition, just one chapter earlier in Luke’s gospel, when after arbitrating a dispute about greatness, Jesus confers on the disciples a kingdom and the right of judgment, only then to turn around and predict that Peter will deny him.

Jesus could also have been talking about me.  I would be the first to confess that I rarely ever have any clue as to what I am doing.  On my best days, I’m halfway decent at faking it.  This is because no two situations I may face in my life are ever identical, and there is always some level of experimentation in responding to the novelty of life.  Sometimes these experiments are successful; other times, not so much.  The only reason my life is not a complete disaster is that I try, as much as I can, to root my next decision in the best practices of the past, the successful experiments and not the failures. 

The Gospel of Luke is much more ambiguous about who Jesus is talking about.  Who are “they”?  Going back earlier in the gospel, “they” refers to a rather large and diverse cohort of subgroups: the disciples, the crowd who came to arrest Jesus, the council, Pilate and his court, Herod and his court, some soldiers, (presumably Roman), and a whole bunch of locals.  That’s a lot of clueless people, which makes me wonder if this particular word from the cross is not more a statement about humanity in general, than about the people who crucified Jesus in particular.

This word from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” is the most hopeful.  Yes, the next word is “Today you will be with me in paradise,” but that word is clearly directed to the penitent criminal.  This word is for all of us.  We are forgiven, despite the fact that we do not know what we are doing.  Forgiveness and salvation are not functions of knowledge, but rather free gifts in spite of a dearth of knowledge.

This is probably a frightening prospect for many of us in higher education, whose life work is the pursuit of knowledge.  Note that Jesus does not say that knowledge is a bad thing.  In fact, his word from the cross seems to presuppose that if we did know what we were doing, his own suffering could be avoided; there would be nothing to forgive.  But forgiveness is not doled out on the basis of knowledge.  Salvation does not come through gnosis.

Today, on Good Friday, the good news is that we are forgiven in spite of what we do and do not know.  Amen.
Good Friday 2013

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