Today I spent some time meditating on the first of Jesus’ “Seven Sayings from the Cross”: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Jesus is in the midst of experiencing both physical and mental torture, humiliation, and agonizing pain, and yet He does not forget or question both who and whose He is, nor His mission (or calling, if you will). He is God’s Son (not to mention the Second Person of the Trinity). God’s love for Him & Hand on Him will never – can ever – change (even when later we read Jesus cry out “My God why have You forsaken me?”). Even Christ on the cross, taking on the sins of the world, could not separate Him from the Father’s love. And so He addressed God as ‘Father.’
For those of us in Christ, this is also true; the well-known passage in Romans 8 reminds us: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God” (vv. 38-39). Yet how often do we question our status before God when everything seems to be going to pot? Either by our own doing, or by circumstances around us, and we cry out “God, where are you? Why have you forsaken me?” When in reality He has not. God’s love for us – the love of a father – will not ever change.
Jesus, in the midst of suffering and agony, asks the Father to forgive those crucifying Him (and by extension, all of us). He asks this of God from a place of authority; He doesn’t say “please” because He has the right to forgive sins (Luke 5:24). For our sakes He entreats God to forgive us. That is the whole purpose of His act on the cross: that we might obtain forgiveness in Christ and adoption in to God’s family. But I wonder if He isn’t also saying it for the Father’s sake as well? Not to anthropomorphize God too much, but I imagine what it must be like for a parent to lose their only child, and the feelings that they’d feel towards those responsible. Anger, for sure. The want for justice or revenge. For the perpetrators to experience themselves the pain that they cause. How much more would God have felt these things in that moment of seeing His Son (of experiencing Himself!) on the cross. I imagine God wanting to go all Old Testament wrath on them. This is His only Son! Look at how they’re treating Him! But the Son is saying “remember why I came to this place; they don’t know what they’re doing, but we do.”
But as Jesus says this from a place of power based on His authority, He’s also saying this from a place of weakness. He is, after all, the one hanging from the cross. And there He is experiencing the full extent of its pain; His divinity does not shield Him from any of it; He is fully human in every respect, including in His body (Phil. 2:7). But this is how much He loves us – He deems us worth it.
“Forgive them.” This theme of forgiveness runs throughout Jesus’ ministry, and so many times in His teaching He commands us to forgive others (for example Matt. 6:12-15, 18:21-22; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:37, 17:3-4). This is the way of the Kingdom that we have been made members of. A kingdom, Stanley Haurewas says, “governed by a politics of forgiveness and redemption,” through which “the world is offered an alternative unimaginable by our sin-determined fantasies” (Cross-Shattered Christ, p. 31).
So we’re commanded to forgive, but as we all know, easier said than done. This is why I think Paul’s command in Philippians 2:3 needs much more emphasis in our culture than we give it: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves” (NIV: “with humility value others above yourselves”). This goes against the deafening message of individualism our culture shouts at us and holds up as virtue, “only look out for #1!” And the same is true of forgiveness. The world teaches revenge & justice; Christ teaches forgiveness (and God will sort out the justice), and it is because of Christ’s work on the cross that we can forgive others.
They do not know what they are doing
Does Christ say this because they don’t know who He is, or because they don’t know they’re doing it to fulfill prophecy? Either way, I know that I sin often unknowingly. I think we all do; giving offense without meaning to, saying and doing hurtful things oblivious to their affect. And then being surprised when we hear about it later. “We didn’t know.” Yet how often do we attribute malicious intent to others’ words and actions? So the lesson I take out of this is to remember that, when offended or hurt by a careless remark or action, the one doing it probably didn’t mean it that way; probably didn’t realize what they were doing. Giving the benefit of the doubt like that is one facet of valuing others above ourselves, and frankly, makes it easier for us to forgive them.
Having said that, there will be times when the intent is there and when it is malicious, but we are no less required to forgive in those cases. There are times when I intentionally sin too, if I’m honest, and one of the reasons for that is because I, too, “don’t know what I’m doing.” That is, I don’t fully comprehend who God is, or who I am in Christ. I don’t fully know the harm to myself and others that my sin causes, or how sad it makes God. Also, I don’t know myself as well as I could/ought/should, and the brokenness in me that leads to my intentional sins. But because I recognize all these things about me, this too, makes it (at least a little) easier to forgive those who intentionally sin against me. I am of course simplifying things too much, and not accounting for the enormity of the sins that people can do to one another (like abuse in all its ugly forms for example), but Christ’s command is clear, and through the cross, with much grace, and with the Holy Spirit we can obey all that He has commanded us to.