Father, Forgive Them, for They Know Not What They Do
Luke 23:33-38 ESV
33 And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”[a] And they cast lots to divide his garments.
35 And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
38 There was also an inscription over him,[b] “This is the King of the Jews.”
People have a way of telling on themselves.
Everyone in this scene is demonstrating exactly who they are.
The criminals are indicating their legal status by being stuck on crosses.
The soldiers are showing their detachment by gambling to see who gets the clothes of a dying man. They are mocking him by giving him a mild anesthetic that dulls his pain, and prolongs his suffering. They are also taunting him “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
The people are watching, not participating in the execution. Not mocking an unjustly condemned man. But not bold enough, or powerful enough to do anything about it.
The rulers are laughing at Jesus and similarly challenging him “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ.”
Everyone is playing his role, which makes Jesus’s role all the more pointed.
Crucifixion was an intentionally shocking, maximally prolonged, public display of torture. Victims were sometimes impaled or placed upside down. Those placed on the cross with hyperextended chests were left unable to breathe, and often died a slow, excruciating death of asphyxiation.
Heart failure and collapsed lungs were common. Spectacular suffering was the point. There is nothing about this that is civil or humane.
Against all the things one could say, when being executed for a nonexistent crime, failing to deny that he is who he actually is, Jesus instead prays for grace: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
That’s not his line.
Procedurally, people being executed were supposed to say “May my death atone for all my sins”
Culturally, Jesus could have invoked Jeremiah, who said of his enemies “Do not forgive their evil or pardon their sin. Throw them down in defeat and deal with them while you are angry. (Jer. 18:23)”
Jesus instead prays for the forgiveness of enemies who were still actively tormenting him, while also confessing their sin: false accusation, a crime that would, by Jewish Law, earn them the penalty of the crime they were attempting to enforce.
In other words, everyone involved in prosecuting Jesus has themselves earned crucifixion, and He is praying for forgiveness.
But he’s not whitewashing the truth.
Jesus asks for forgiveness, but also NAMES their transgression: false accusation. This is worthy of death. But he asks for no death.
And what Jesus models for us here is the surprising way of grace
Grace is the unmerited favor of God that gives us things we don’t deserve, like pardons.
But a pardon requires a confession.
Look at what Jesus doesn’t do.
He doesn’t say “It’s ok.”
He doesn’t say “it’s nothing.”
He names the crime, and then forgives them.
Grace gives you multiple chances to get right before consequences come.
Jesus saves this pronouncement till the end of his life.
He could have been saying it from the moment he appeared, and people said, isn’t this the carpenter’s kid.
Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.
He could have said it when the Pharisees said we think he fights Demons with the help of Demons.
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
He could have said it when they arrested him for claiming to be king of the Jews.
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
It could have become his battle cry. It probably would have been ours.
Essentially: You’ll be sorry.
But all this time he endures these slights, confronting people for the way they treat his father’s house, and his father’s people, but not so much how they treat him.
But now he comes to the end of the road. Now they are executing him without cause. Because he has revealed truth that makes them look bad, has exposed them as erroneous and fraudulent, and upended power structures that benefit them.
So now, with his ministry complete, Jesus says, Father forgive them.
Grace is generous. It gives people every opportunity to do the right thing.
But Grace also, once wrong has been irrevocably chosen, names the crime.
You can’t heal a thing by saying its not there.
You can’t forgive a crime that you will not admit.
Jesus, here, takes the radical step of saying this is your transgression. It’s not ok.
He doesn’t downplay it.
He doesn’t excuse it.
But he does forgive.
So what does this mean for us?
Many of us are carrying wounds in our bodies, our souls, our spirits, that have not healed because we have not been willing to name them.
Someone here is stuck tonight unable to forgive because you refuse to acknowledge what was done to you.
Maybe because of denial
Maybe because of shame.
Maybe you are still submitting to a demonic demand.
Have mercy on those of us who have become co-conspirators in plots against us.
Have mercy on those of us who have urged the suffering to keep quiet because we too feared the consequences of speaking the truth.
Some of us are stuck because we see naming the offense as ineveitably destructive.
But Jesus models the liberation of articulation.
Now, speaking truth to power may not elicit a positive response. The offender may deny their crimes. It doesn’t matter.
They may gaslight, stonewall, manipulate, or twist. We may be stunned by their audacity.
And just as crucifixion was intentionally grotesque, an emboldened bully may make a point to dishonor you to protect their reputation.
They may publicly disrespect you so no-one questions their power.
But Jesus offers a powerful response: forgiveness that tells the truth.
Mamie Till insisted on an open casket funeral for her son. She said “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.”
Nelson Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered amnesty for war crimes to people who publicly testified, in detail, to those crimes.
Without passing judgment on the past, we cannot enter into the future.
But the future is bright.
And the time has come to walk into it.
So we must literally, figuratively, and symbolically face our abusers, stand our ground, and say, as Jesus said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
(Photo Credit: Pixabay)
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