Had we been in the crowd watching Jesus die, we would have heard him utter seven powerful statements from the cross. Remarkable words, not only due to his suffering, but because they conveyed deep meaning. No one Gospel records all seven. But why did he say what he said? Why are these last words so important? There appears to be no logical process or progression. But they make up a picture, like a mosaic, with Jesus at the centre. As we reflect on each of them, and consider their significance, let us appropriate them inwardly to ourselves and pray that we may see the whole picture more clearly and so go deeper in our understanding.
Luke tells us that as Jesus was dying on the cross he cried out, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23:34). After the mockery of his trial, and the violent cries of the crowd, Jesus is led away by the Roman soldiers, tortured, and (with the help of Simon of Cyrene) forced to carry a heavy wooden cross up the hill to the Place of the Skull. People, including those who love him, follow on behind, and then Jesus is nailed to the cross and crucified. He could have judged the world and those who judged him. He could have cursed them as they cursed him. He could have deserted the world and forgotten it, as he was deserted and forgotten. But he forgives them … and despite his fearful pain he prays for those who were causing his pain, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing!’
Who are the ‘them’ that Jesus refers to here? The disciples who abandoned him? Pontus Pilate and those who judged him? The Roman soldiers who actually hammered the nails thro his hands and feet? Jews? Romans? The whole baying mob? The mob who symbolise the whole of sinful humanity including us? ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing!’ Surely they knew what they were doing? The Jewish leaders knew! Pilate knew … even though he tried to wash his hands of the whole thing … knew that he was putting an innocent man to death! When given the opportunity by Pilate to free Jesus, the crowd had shouted all the more, ‘Crucify! Repeatedly insisting ‘Crucify him! Crucify him! They must have known that Jesus didn’t deserve to die!
Some say that this saying was aimed exclusively at the Roman soldiers because they didn’t know what they were doing? So ignorance is the key, is it? Anything is excusable as long as we can claim to be ignorant? Does Jesus only forgive us when we don’t know what we are doing? But usually we jolly well do know exactly what we are doing! And sometimes we have absolutely no intention of stopping?
Jesus preached and lived mercy and forgiveness all through his Ministry. This prayer of Jesus – ‘Father forgive them’ – was not a narrow, limited prayer. Its scope was much bigger than we realise. Everyone was included – those who acted in ignorance, and those who thought they knew what they were doing. Actually they didn’t really know what they were doing, and Jesus knew that they didn’t know – know that they were nailing God to a cross!? And we too might think that we know what we are doing, in our pride, when we sin? But actually we don’t, not really, not the extent of it anyway?! We don’t really understand the consequences of our sin. Nor do we fully comprehend that all our sin, all the sin of sinful humanity, is covered by the death of Jesus. Sin is finally dealt with! Nothing is left out! It is forgiven … all is forgiven! We are forgiven … not because we act in ignorance or stop or repent … but because of who God is and what he has done for us in Christ!
This is of such vital importance that it is one of the last things Jesus said! The Greek (the language Luke records this saying of Jesus in, in his Gospel) gives a profound sense of a prayer being constantly repeated as Jesus’ life drained away – ‘Father, forgive them! Father forgive them!’ – over and over and over again!