From Forgiveness: A Theology
In his commentary on Luke’s gospel, Christopher Evans sets the writing of the gospel between 75-130 CE. The gospel is therefore almost certainly written after Mark’s gospel, though we cannot be sure whether it was written before or after Matthew’s gospel.
Most likely, the same person is the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. The author is usually referred to as “Luke,” and the two books as “Luke-Acts.” When I refer to the gospel alone, I call it “Luke,” or “the Gospel of Luke.”
A quick read of the Gospel of Luke discloses that Luke incorporated into his gospel much of the Gospel of Mark, as well as having some material either of his own (traditionally referred to as coming from a source or sources called “L”) or which he shares with Matthew (which scholars call “Q”). Luke himself says in the introduction of the gospel that his account is based on careful use of the reports of eyewitnesses and of early Christian ministers. So it is plausible that Luke knew Mark’s gospel, had access to other material, whether oral or written, and was writing what we today would regard as a carefully researched account, based on sources that were contemporaneous with the events he describes.
Interpreting the gospel with these suppositions about the source-material Luke used can help us to identify Luke’s editorial intentions, and so his particular interests and emphases. It can point us to how and when Luke modified material that is found in Mark; it can also point us to what Luke excludes from Mark. Asking why Luke made these editorial changes may suggest what is distinctive about Luke’s theology of forgiveness. For similar reasons, we will be able to identify what Luke leaves unchanged: the fact that some material is apparently deliberately unchanged, or edited in only minor ways, suggests it has an important place in Luke’s theology of forgiveness, just as it may have in other gospels where it is found.
Despite Luke’s probable use of Mark’s gospel and the presence of material they share, Luke subtly changes the emphasis he inherits from Mark’s gospel. The result is that Luke’s gospel is a work with a different feel, and with different theological emphases. As with Mark, there is not a great deal explicitly about interpersonal forgiveness. Nevertheless, we have reason to say, as we shall see later, that, of the writers of the Christian scriptures, Luke is one of two theologians of forgiveness par excellence. The other is Matthew.
Of Luke’s four explicit references to interpersonal forgiveness (which are all in the gospel), Luke 23:34 (Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing) is a disputed reading. The verse is in some of the best manuscripts, and not in other of the best manuscripts. It is probably one of the best known of all verses in the Christian scriptures. Bruce Metzger’s conclusion is that the verse “though probably not a part of the original Greek of Luke, bears self-evident tokens of its dominical origin,” and so has been “incorporated by unknown copyists relatively early in the transmission” of the gospel.
The verse is commonly (but mistakenly) referred to as Jesus’s prayer of “forgiveness” on the cross. It is reflected in Stephen’s prayer in Acts 7:60 as he was dying. In Luke 23:34 and Acts 7:60, by their prayers, both Jesus and Stephen exemplify a spirit that eschews revenge, and seeks the best for their enemies. In this way, the prayers model Jesus’s own teaching that we find, for example, in Luke 6:27-37. Nevertheless, the prayers are not prayers that God would forgive unrepentant wrongdoers. In addition, neither passage supports the suggestion that one should forgive unrepentant wrongdoers, or leaves open the possibility that, in offering forgiveness, Christians thereby hang up their integrity or connive with or condone wrongdoing.
Of the other three references to interpersonal forgiveness in the gospel, Luke 17:3-4 has echoes of Matthew 18:15, 21-22, but is clearly from a different source. Jesus states in verse 3 that if one’s brother repents (meaning by, “brother,” of course, not a male sibling only, but a fellow believer of either sex), one should forgive that person. The emphasis is different from Mark 11:25-26: in Mark, the emphasis is on the victim taking initiative to forgive, whereas in Luke the emphasis is on the wrongdoer repenting and taking the initiative to seek forgiveness. In verse 4, Jesus says that if the same person sins against you seven times a day, one must forgive that person, if he or she is repentant, every time that person seeks forgiveness. (If one stops to think carefully, to be wronged seven times in one day could amount to a dreadful measure of trauma. This suggests that the verse is another example of Jesus teaching in hyperbole to make what he said memorable.)
Two implications arise from what Jesus says in 17:4. First, forgiveness should not be limited, reluctant, or conditional with a forgiver apparently saying or implying before offering forgiveness, I will forgive you on this one occasion, but if you wrong me again I will not forgive you. Second, people are to forgive repentant wrongdoers, no matter how difficult it may seem and no matter what the personal cost, because the practice of interpersonal forgiveness is one of the paramount characteristics of being a follower of Jesus.
The other two verses on interpersonal forgiveness link forgiving others with being forgiven oneself. They do not state that repentance is a precondition of forgiveness, though one should not think otherwise, because in the rest of Luke-Acts repentance and forgiveness are almost always linked. The first of the two verses is Luke 6:37. Jesus states baldly, Forgive [set free], and you will be forgiven [be set free]. (This is the only place in the gospel where Luke does not use aphiē or aphesis for “forgive” and “forgiveness.” Instead, Luke uses the very, apoluō.) The second is Luke 11:4, which is from Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer and which has parallels in Mark 11:23. It grounds a prayer for divine forgiveness on the fact that the suppliant is a forgiver. The words of Luke 11:4 are: Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive all indebted to us. (Debt is a metaphor for sin.) At these points, Luke is theologically similar to Mark and the point is clear: forgiving others and being forgiven go together.
Looking at these four passages on interpersonal forgiveness together, we can summarize Luke’s theology of interpersonal forgiveness in this way: forgiveness is about not taking revenge but seeking the best for one’s enemies. It is always unconditionally to forgive the repentant, without regard to how difficult or personally costly it may be. People who forgive can look to God to forgive them; by implication, those who do not forgive others will not themselves receive God’s forgiveness.
In these respects, Luke and Mark are self-consistent; we might say that Luke more strongly emphasizes repentance than Mark, but apart from that, we come away with conclusions that are much the same. What is different – significantly different – is the theological context in which Luke sets interpersonal forgiveness. To this we now turn.
The organizing key to Mark’s theology of forgiveness is the kingdom of God and what that means. Not so, with Luke. For Luke, what is central is that Jesus is “the Christ” (Messiah). In Luke’s gospel, the Messiah is the savior who brings aphesis, that is, forgiveness of or release from sins. Thus, Simeon was promised he would see the “Messiah” before his death; the Messiah was the “salvation” for all the peoples of the world. Similarly, John the Baptist’s ministry was to prepare the way for the one who would bring the promised “salvation.” John insisted that he was “not the Messiah”; rather the Messiah was the one for whose way he was preparing. The Messiah in Luke’s writings reconstitutes the people of God, so that its identity comes not from Jerusalem and the temple, an identity that we see so clearly at the start of the gospel, but from the response of individuals to Jesus and, in the period after the Holy Spirit had been given, by baptism in the Spirit. It is by believing in Jesus that people are saved and forgiven.
The savior brings aphesis, not only of sins but also of much more. In Luke, aphesis principally means “release,” that is, release from sin, from illness and death, from demonic forces, from oppression, and from injustice. Two examples that are not of release from sin illustrate this. In Luke 4:16-30, the first example, Jesus quotes from a pastiche of verses loosely based on Isaiah 61 and 58 about an anointed person who brings aphesis (release) for prisoners. The same verse speaks of “freedom” for the oppressed. Significantly, Jesus says that the verses from Isaiah that he quotes have been fulfilled in the hearing of his listeners. By this he means that he is the anointed person whose coming brings release and completes Jewish messianic expectations. The second example is of the woman whom Jesus healed of spinal scoliosis. He said she had been “bound” by Satan. In healing her, Jesus said he had made her free from the imprisonment of the disease. The good news of Luke’s gospel is that Jesus, the Messiah and savior, brings freedom for and release to a world in the thrall of Satan.
Words for “forgiveness” do not occur in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Nevertheless, many regard the parable as having much to say about forgiveness because in the parable the father welcomes back his errant son.
Almost certainly and from its context in the gospel, the parable is about the fact that God restores to the community of faith Jewish people, such as “tax-collectors and sinners” (typologically represented by the younger son), who have excluded themselves from the community by sin. The father unconditionally welcomes back the younger son when he (the younger son) returns in penitence and remorse. The point is that there is nothing people can do, even repudiating their former place in the convenant, which can take them outside God’s welcoming mercy and love. The only condition for return is that they want to return, seek to return, and return in penitence.
I suspect some did not welcome the parable because they thought Jesus was teaching that God favored the faithless and disobedient. The older son in the parable represents such critics. He was angry with his father for throwing a party for a younger brother who, in the older son’s opinion, deserved punishment and condemnation. Jesus highlights the older son’s self-pitying, judgmental attitude, and thereby exposes the self-pity and judgmental attitude, and thereby exposes the self-pity and judgmentalism of Jesus’s own hearers toward “tax-collectors and sinners.” In response, and by means of the parable, Jesus assures those who criticized him for extending mercy and welcome to “tax-collectors and sinners” that their (the critics’) place in the covenant is secure and that God’s love for them remains undimmed. What Jesus means is that though there is rejoicing over lost sinners who return, it is not at the expense of continued rejoicing over those who never left.
There are two lessons about forgiveness for Jesus’s hearers here. Obviously, there is the father’s welcome of the younger son’s return. The point is that as God welcomes all people who wish to return, so human beings should welcome and forgive those who wish to put right past wrongs. It is the principle of Luke 17:3, this time in parabolic form: If there is repentance, you must forgive. The second lesson, which is not usually brought out with clarity, is that the older son must learn to forgive, too. Forgiveness is a gift for the undeserving and for failures. It should not be withheld as a way of showing one’s disapproval of what a wrongdoer has done. The older son, therefore, needed to welcome home, and forgive, his younger brother.
The place of “tax-collectors and sinners” and their relationship to the “righteous” is also explored in Luke 7:36-50, the story of the woman with ointment who outlandishly and extravagantly anointed Jesus’s feet at the house of Simon, a Pharisee.
Simon is deeply critical that Jesus allowed himself to be anointed by a “sinner” – and a woman sinner at that. Jesus tells a parable that simply demonstrates, by analogy with money debt, that the more one is forgiven, the more one responds with gratitude. Jesus then explains that the woman’s actions are lavish because she believed she had done much that was wrong and had received much forgiveness; she knew that the measure of her forgiveness corresponded with the measure of her wrongdoing. Although Luke does not make this link, one can imagine that the woman will herself also be a forgiving person, because of her own experience of being forgiven.
There is a “sting in the tail” for Simon, the Pharisee, to whom Jesus is speaking. Jesus points out to Simon that, compared with the woman, he (Simon) had been relatively unwelcoming and inhospitable. More than that, because he was not a “sinner” like the woman, he had failed to realize that he was critical about her, and perhaps even smug and self-righteous. In other words, for all his righteousness, Simon too stood in need of forgiveness. One hopes that Simon came to see that, like the woman, he needed to be forgiven much, even though at the start of the story, if he had applied his mind to the question, he would have thought that he did not.
In some respects, Simon is like the older son in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Unlike the older son, he was not angry and self-pitying about another’s forgiveness and inclusion; however, like the older son, he was critical of the grace extended to an unrighteous sinner. Both Simon and the older son were blind to their own need for forgiveness. A critical, bitter spirit (in the case of the older son) or self-righteous, critical disdain (in the case of Simon the Pharisee) can close off people from being forgiving, and can also close off those same people from seeing their own need for forgiveness and from the grace that forgiveness brings. Perhaps this observation helps us to make better sense of Luke 6:37 (Forgive, and you will be forgiven.) and Luke 11:4 (Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us); people who do not forgive others are often blind to their own need for forgiveness and so do not experience the grace that being forgiven can bring. To mix Biblical imagery, they are so occupied about not forgiving others for the speck they see in those others’ eyes that they fail to see their need to be forgiven for the log in their own eyes.
If we were to ask Luke why people should forgive one another, Luke would answer, as would Mark, that divine forgiveness is contingent upon interpersonal forgiveness. Always go on forgiving the repentant! and Forgivers will be forgiven! could be their slogans.
For Luke, to forgive is a virtue and a duty at the core of Christian discipleship. In his view, human beings are to be merciful to the repentant, even if the repentant are otherwise also apparently undeserving, and to practice forgiving as God forgives. Luke highlights, in a way that Mark does not, that no one should be excluded from being forgiven if they are repentant.
Luke would add that one of the characteristics of the kingdom of God is God’s aphesis – release, restoration, freedom, forgiveness, and so on – from all that shackles and constrains human beings. In other words, God’s aphesis undoes what oppresses human beings and (we might add) puts right injustice, abuse, mistreatment, suffering, and brutality. God will also include outsiders who, in the present era of history, are excluded, and restore the “have nots” to their rightful place. Interpersonal forgiveness, Luke would say, mirrors God’s forgiveness and offers a foretaste of the greater restorative work that God one day will complete. But note that with Luke it is not interpersonal forgiveness at any price: there must always be antecedent repentance to ensure, in some measure, that forgivers are themselves not oppressed by an overriding duty to forgive at the cost of a measure of justice for the forgivers themselves.
In addition, Luke’s theology of interpersonal forgiveness is robust and psychologically astute. Luke perceptively points out that those who think they have little for which they need to be forgiven are mistaken; their sins may not be so egregious as some, but they have sins – usually of thought and motive rather than of deed – that are every bit in need of God’s mercy as those whose outward actions deny them a place in the Jewish covenant.