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Sermon: “They Know Not What They Do”


St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Luke 19.28-40; Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29 // Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; Luke 22.14-23.56

The real sermon for today is the passion story. I suspect you might have heard something new in this story, something that had previously escaped your attention. If so, would anyone like to briefly share your thoughts? (Allow a couple of people to share, then proceed with the homily.)

For many years I have been struck by Jesus’ words on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23.34; NRSV). I have long marveled at this spirit of forgiveness. If I were on the cross, would I find it within myself to utter such words, or would I rail and curse those who were crucifying me? I suspect I might find some new and creative ways to curse! What could Jesus have meant by asking their forgiveness? Two thoughts come to mind.

We may argue, those who crucified Jesus knew what they were about. Caiaphas certainly did, for at the meeting of the council where they were deciding what to do with Jesus, he said, “’You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ . . . So from that day on they planned to put him to death” (John 11.49, 53; NRSV). This was a well-planned execution; they were worldly wise in the use of power; they knew what they were doing! Why would Jesus say, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”? Is there a sense in which they did not know?

Jesus was speaking from a life and a position of wisdom which was totally foreign to those who crucified him. Jesus was speaking from a depth of love of which they knew nothing; Jesus epistemological framework was radically different from anything they had ever experienced. Caiaphas and crew were well acquainted with the idols of wealth, power, and prestige; they had faithfully worshiped these idols and they were faithfully committed to serving them, and in so doing, to serving themselves.

Unlike them, Jesus, the Christ, had emptied himself that he might take on flesh and pitch his tent among us. Though fully human, Jesus showed us the nature of true love; Jesus’ love was not grounded in egoistic needs – it was grounded in altruistic gift. Jesus is the incarnational expression of God’s love for us. Jesus recognized those who crucified him had no understanding or knowledge of this love. From the standpoint of God’s love, of kingdom values, they had no knowledge of what they did.

Even Jesus disciples were not fully aware of their own service to the idols of wealth, power, and prestige. In Luke’s passion story, we read how a dispute arose among the disciples concerning which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. Jesus, teaching until the last, told them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves . . . I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22.25-27; NRSV).

Jesus knew the disciples would desert him; he told Peter, “I have prayed for you that your own faith would not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22.32; NRSV). Shortly thereafter, Peter denied him three times! Luke tells us, “At that moment, while Peter was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered . . . and he went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22.60b-62; NRSV).

Our journey into Easter, into a life of death and resurrection, bids us become like Jesus Christ. In St. Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, Paul, it is believed, quotes an ancient hymn: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2.5-11; NRSV). In baptism, we die to self that we might live in Christ Jesus. But as Peter’s life shows us, this is a process. Just as Jesus looked at Peter, so he looks at us. Jesus prays that once we have turned back, we might strengthen our sisters and brothers. Jesus offers wonderful insight and new life!


Palm Sunday, Jesus

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