“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
Jesus – hanging on the Cross.
A few days before, He forewarned His friends over a final Passover meal together. Feeling the weight of what lay ahead, He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane to His Father that the cup might pass from Him. Then, betrayed by Judas with a kiss, He is arrested by religious authorities. In a frenzy of cast-off justice, He fades all manner of false charges before the Jewish High Priest. Finally, accused of blasphemy and fomenting revolution, He is interviewed by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. With no basis for their accusations, the crowd clamors with demands for His crucifixion. He is chosen for execution while Barabbas, a revolutionary murderer is set free. Brutally scourged by the Romans, Jesus loses flesh and blood. His hands and arms spread wide and affixed to a crossbeam, He is roughly lifted and dropped into place, with His feet painfully nailed to the upright. Two criminals join Him, one on either side. Jesus: a public spectacle as busy people pass by outside Jerusalem.
The crucifixion has begun. Jesus, dangling there in excruciating pain, says: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
What is at the forefront of our minds in times of trouble? Often, we express our thoughts with intense exclamations, like “why is this happening to me?!” or “When will this all be over?!” But not Jesus. For Him, it is: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
First, Jesus says, “Father.” Jesus’ relationship with God the Father is more real and present to Him than anything else, even His own suffering. He once said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Earlier, when He was twelve, Jesus lingered in the Jerusalem Temple, talking with the teachers of the Law. When Joseph and Mary found Him, Jesus said, “Didn’t you know I had to be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49). And now here He is on the Cross…fulfilling His Father’s business.
Next, He says, “Father, forgive.” With gasping breaths, Jesus asks His Father for one thing: forgiveness for others. We know from other episodes in Scripture that Jesus had unique, divine authority to forgive. When asked, “who can forgive sins but God alone?”, Jesus responded by not only speaking forgiveness of sins over a paralyzed man, but also healing him as a proof of divine authority. Now, on the Cross, Jesus sees with stark clarity the real human need for forgiveness. He has seen that need for forgiveness in the disappearance of His friends and the cohorts of soldiers approaching Him. He has felt it in the moisture of a kiss and the scourges ripping into His flesh. He has heard it in the leaders’ mockery and the cry of the crowds. Yet, God’s desire and nature to forgive is most vibrantly real to Jesus.
He says, “Father, forgive them.” Forgive them – the Roman authorities who scourged Him, mocked Him, crucified Him. Forgive them – the Jewish leaders, who, out of envy and self-interest, intentionally victimized Jesus to preserve their own position and protect their own version of religion. Forgive them – the crowd who alternately admired and condemned Jesus, who hailed Him as King when he entered Jerusalem, and now, were crying out, “Crucify Him.” Forgive them – the followers who had voiced their stubborn commitment to never leave Jesus’ side, yet now had mostly disappeared like dust blown away by the wind.Father, forgive them – us today, still yet to come at that moment many years ago. We stumble around in life, trying our best. At times we unintentionally wrong others through ignorance or prejudice. But even worse, at other times we intentionally wrong others with cutting words, angry actions, misguided deeds, or holding onto bitterness as the soil in which evil grows. Though we may feel so far away from that moment two-thousand years ago at the Cross, yet, even for us, Jesus says, “Father, forgive them”
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Ignorance abounds in Jesus’ crucifixion: ignorance of His identity, ignorance of His power, ignorance of the fading power of evil, ignorance of God’s greater plans for humanity through the Christ. But even ignorance is not an excuse. It’s not enough to plead ignorance in the taking of a life, the misguided exclusion, or the failures of responsibility. Even ignorant wrong calls for justice and requires forgiveness.
If that is true, how much more do the intentional wrongs we inflict on others and God through our willful rebellion and self-centered intentions call for change and the need forgiveness?
Jesus – in all the agony of the Cross – was most mindful of talking with His Father about the forgiveness needed for the humanity He had come to rescue.
Scripture tells us that human beings are made in the image of God, and that we are the pinnacle of creation. Because of this, underlying every wrong toward another person is an ultimate wrong against God who has made us in His image. Now if that ultimate wrong against God underlies all the shadows of condemnation that cover us, then we cannot truly make things right with one another, the world, or God on our own. It requires something different.
It would require God standing not only as the One who is wronged, but also the One who takes the weight of that wrong upon Himself; to redirect it, to reframe it, and forgive it.
God must not only be wronged but also receive the relational and cosmic impact of wrongs upon Himself. Only God has the power to name wrong for what it is but also to deal with the condemnation of wrong.
And so, Jesus enters our world and our lives as fully God and fully man. He identifies and names the shadows of wrong touching every human life and aspect of our creation. And He enters the shadows of that wrong, ultimately at the Cross.
There, fixed at the crossroads of humanity and divinity, of wrong’s condemnation and wrong’s reparation, Jesus speaks with all authority and all compassion the word we all most need to hear, but could never utter ourselves: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”