Conversation on Forgiveness: Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman

April 2, 2017
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen
Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman

Luke 23:32-35

Hart-Andersen: We’re delighted to welcome back to Westminster our good friend Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman, senior rabbi of Temple Israel. Thank you, Rabbi, for joining us in this Lenten dialogue sermon series on forgiveness. It’s always good to have you here.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

It’s the last word on forgiveness in the gospel, the defining moment in the life and ministry of Jesus. The one who has been preaching unconditional love and showing forgiveness now finds himself being publicly executed. He hangs on the cross humiliated and helpless, barely able to draw breath as gravity pulls his weight down into his chest, crushing his lungs. And yet, even in his suffering, somehow he finds the strength to say one more sentence: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Can we imagine the crucifixion without those words?

I know we’re getting ahead of ourselves; Good Friday is still two weeks away. But in a sermon series on forgiveness in the Christian gospel we can hardly avoid this line. It’s a breath-taking moment, literally.

Sometimes when I am working with a familiar biblical passage, I try to put myself in the position of a newcomer to the text, hearing it for the first time. As I do that, hearing this text – the account of the end of Jesus’ life – for the first time, I’m astonished at his capacity to summon forgiveness on the cross. And then I find myself getting upset with him. How could he do that, let them off so easily for what they have done?

His words leave me, frankly, conflicted. I chafe at the example with which Jesus leaves us. Does he expect us to do the same? Does he expect us to forgive those who offend or abuse or hurt us, even when they haven’t asked to be forgiven, as he has done; even when they don’t deserve to be forgiven for what they have done?

Rabbi, help me here. Does Judaism teach a forgiveness like that – expecting the people of God to offer forgiveness even when someone does not ask for it?

Rabbi Zimmerman: So, Jesus clearly reads the same text that I do. He had read this story before in the book of Numbers when Moses forgives his brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, for speaking out against him, for actually saying disparaging words about his wife who was a Cushite woman. Here we see the implicit bias that we talk about today. Cush was in Africa, in the area near modern Ethiopia.

There is a moment when God brings the three of them out and says, “How dare you speak against another creature of mine? How dare you speak against your brother Moses.”

And God strikes Miriam with leprosy. The contrast does not go unnoticed: leprosy makes her white. Who comes to Miriam’s aid but Moses, the one whom she had spoken out against. He asks for forgiveness for her. “God please forgive her, heal her. “

In that moment, he is very much in the situation in which Jesus finds himself. Something has happened against him, and he asks for forgiveness of the one who did it to him. It is a common theme.

Just last week I was at the Central Conference for American Reformed Rabbis gathering. Dr. Deborah Lipstadt spoke. She’s the one in the movie Denial who fought against a Holocaust denier. Brilliant woman. In the reality of the uptick in anti-Semitism that our community has felt, she said, “We need not to focus so much on what people do to Jews, but rather what Jews do.”

Pretty powerful. You can get really caught in that – so upset about hatred that you get mired down into a rut that really sells your soul. And you don’t want to do that. Really the antidote to hatred is to feel proud of who you are despite what others accuse you of. To feel the strength of history and of our texts and to feel what is important about Judaism. I think that is a part of what Jesus is saying.

Hart-Andersen:  So Jesus is offering a kind of “archetype of forgiveness” by offering it before it is asked for?

Rabbi Zimmerman: Very much so. We are supposed to ask for forgiveness from human beings before we ask God for forgiveness on Yom Kippur. We don’t come and say, “God, forgive me for what I did to my brother, or my sister, or my neighbor, or my friend”; we have to go to that person first, the Talmud tells us. You have to ask for forgiveness from that person first, not one time, not two times, but three times. And you have to truly bring an authentic forgiveness, of course, and then after the third time if the person doesn’t forgive you, the sin is on them.

Hart-Andersen: I think of the story of Mary Johnson when I hear these words – Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. In 2005 Ms. Johnson, who lives in north Minneapolis, established an organization called From Death to Life. Westminster has hosted her on several occasions to hear her story. Her only son was killed by a 16-year old named Oshea Israel in 1993. He was convicted and imprisoned.

As a heartbroken, angry, grieving mother, Mary carried a heavy burden for more than a decade.

Eventually she came to realize that the only way to set that burden down, to uncouple herself from the smoldering anger and bitterness, was to find it in her heart to forgive the young man who had taken the life of her son. Not knowing him or ever having met him, she found the inner resources to do so.

Later she decided she wanted to get to know him, so she went to the prison and met Oshea, and befriended him. When he was released the two of them became close. Today the mother of the victim and the killer – whom she now refers to as her “spiritual son” – tell a story of forgiveness and repentance and reconciliation in an effort to heal the deep wound of violence that cuts through the soul of our land.

Mary Johnson is an ordinary parent who found the strength to do something extraordinary. Few of us have had to face the challenge of forgiveness on that scale.

We tend to struggle with other things that wound us…an angry word, a hurtful comment, an unkind action, abuse in a relationship. Forgiveness is hard to offer at any level when it’s not sought, when the perpetrator doesn’t ask to be forgiven. Yet, that’s what Jesus does, and in so doing, at the moment of death he frees himself of the additional torment of betrayal and bitterness. He resolves his inner anguish, even as his physical suffering continues to the end. He sets it all aside, and dies in peace, unburdened.

Marcy, I know you have special interest and training in psychology and counseling. From the perspective of a counselor, how important is it to find the wherewithal to forgive someone, even if that person has not asked to be forgiven, as Mary Johnson did, and as Jesus does? What does that do for us, as the one who has been aggrieved, the victim of someone’s aggression?

Rabbi Zimmerman: When Tim and I were speaking earlier this week I heard this story as he told it in a different way. I am taking a class at MPSI, the Minnesota Psychoanalytic Society Institute, and I heard this story through the lens of my work there. For the first time I saw that Jesus was actually finding his agency in the feeling of powerlessness by forgiving. And that really is part of who we are as human beings.

You see, if you take Freud’s sense of drive, aggression is one of the two drives we have. When we forgive, it’s actually part of the drive for aggression. It turns our aggression – as we often define it as anger, or frustration – into forgiveness and understanding. It’s actually turning aggression on its head. But it’s still the same drive.

For me, instead of Jesus giving into feeling like a victim and powerless, which we would assume is what he would feel, he found his own agency by forgiving in the moment prior to his death. It isn’t a selfless act; it’s actually the way he found himself, deep inside of him. Perhaps that gives another lens to understand the story.

Hart-Andersen: Thank you for that rabbinical psychoanalysis of Jesus dying on the cross!

Rabbi Zimmerman: I will analyze anyone!

Hart-Andersen: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

To whom is Jesus referring in these words? Who are the “they” who don’t know what they do? That question would seem to have an obvious answer. Jesus, the Jew, was arrested by soldiers of the Roman army that occupied Jerusalem. Jesus, the Jew, was tried by the local Roman military governor. Jesus, the Jew, was crucified in a Roman form of execution. Roman soldiers nailed him to the cross, mocking him as the King of the Jews. It’s obvious who put Jesus to death.

And yet, somewhere in the history of the early Church, something happened. Around the time Christianity became the official religion of empire, the Roman Empire, the story changed.  The Church absolved Rome and shifted attention to the Jews themselves, to terrible consequences. No single part of our Christian history and theology has given rise to more hatred and violence toward Jews over the centuries than the assertion that Jews were collectively responsible – then, and through history – for the death of Jesus.

The message of the cross became not one of forgiveness of those who persecuted unto death the one whom we follow, but, rather, revenge on those whom we falsely accused of having killed him. Centuries of unrelenting terror and pogroms and genocidal policies followed.

Rabbi, I know your own family has borne the brunt of the anti-Semitism that grew out of the Christian Church’s effort to blame the Jews for the death of Jesus. Those same sentiments are being stirred even today in our land.

Rabbi Zimmerman: I think every Jewish family has a story. One of the stories of my family is from my father’s side. His father’s family were bakers in a shtetl in Russia. Every Good Friday, when the Passion Play was reenacted in town and given voice in churches, was a very scary day at that time in that place. Every Good Friday, while I appreciate it is a Holy Day, in my family, this story was told.

In the late 1800s, before they came to this country in the early 20th century, my father would tell me, that my grandfather and his family would cool down the ovens of the bakery every Good Friday. They cooled the ovens down, because after the Passion Play had been held in town, the attendees were stirred up against the Jewish community. They would set fire to the Jewish part of the village. And the women and children would crawl into the cooled down ovens – which is a frightening thing when you think about what happened thirty plus years later. They were safe there because the fire could not come into the iron-clad ovens. That story is told in my family and I share it with you.

Hart-Andersen: After 2,000 years of violence against Jews, who should be asking forgiveness of whom?

Rabbi, we at Westminster want you to know that we stand in solidarity with you and Temple; that we abhor the anti-Semitic words and actions that continue to plague our land and seem to be on the rise even today; and, that we acknowledge and repent of the Church’s own history that gave rise to stereotypes and prejudice and discrimination and violence.

Rabbi Zimmerman:  I appreciate that, thank you…that means the world to us. Even in the midst of blaming the Jews there were Christians who were always righteous and fought against that narrative. My mother-in-law is a survivor of the Holocaust. She grew up in Lvov, Poland and lost her entire family. Part of her story is that she was saved with false papers as a Catholic, as a Christian. She lived many years that way. The church, the nuns, took her in, and every day she would go to church, three times a day, and live as a Christian.  The nuns knew she was a Jew. They never turned her in. They protected her. They saved her life. And because of them, my three children live and breathe in this country with religious freedoms that I hope will never be taken away for any. We all must work together.

Hart-Andersen: Archbishop Tutu was right: There is no future without forgiveness. Jesus signals that from the cross, and we remember his words in the bread and the cup, the sacrament of forgiveness we are about to share at this table of reconciliation.

Jesus calls us to forgive in our own lives – and every one of us has a place in our lives where that is needed – and in our communities, so that God’s love might be known. That work, the difficult work of forgiveness, will transform us, and heal us and our communities, and bring new life.

Thanks be to God.


Pastoral Prayer ~8:30 am Worship

Brennan Blue

Let us pray: Our God and Creator

it is truly right and our greatest joy to give you thanks and praise

In your wisdom, you made all things

and sustain them by your grace

You formed us in your image

setting us in this world to love and serve you

and to live in peace with your whole creation

Though we may fall and stumble

And fail to live up to the wonder of your image

We know that your mercy and compassion will never leave us

Always, your steadfast love prevails

Here, at the table, where compassion meets community

We remember, your great love for the world

Made known to us in Christ

Poor in things of the world

Jesus brought the wealth of your grace

Teaching love and forgiveness

While challenging closed hearts and complacency

In Christ’s dying and rising, you opened the way for your church

Offering us a new covenant by water and the Spirit

So may the grace of your Good News continue to bring

life beyond death and love beyond merit

May your peace rise in the places of pain too deep to name
May your Spirit of comfort surround all of those

Who feel lost or lonely; in grief or despair

May they feel and know the love of this community
and the promise of peace that calls us home in Christ

Lord in your mercy, we pray for those who’ve died and for all left grieving and hurting in the wake of a landslide in Columbia.

We pray for hunger in Somalia

For peace in South Sudan

And for reconciliation in our own families and communities

We pray for those recovering from surgery
for those without a home and those who long for home

We raise our faults and fears to you

And pray for forgiveness and faith

So may you continue, Lord, to guide and sustain us
though Word and Sacrament, through community and care

May your Spirit reside with us, O Lord, and with these gifts

That the bread we break and the cup we bless may be

The communion of the body and blood of Christ

Filling, nourishing and transforming
Even as they are broken and poured out before us

We place our hope in the one who cried “father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

So may the body broken become one through gifts of your grace

As we share now in the prayer Christ taught us, saying…

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