“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). These are the first words Jesus says after being nailed to the cross. And what powerful words they are. Who is he speaking about here? These words are so unusual, so stunning, given the circumstances in which they are spoken. This is why they are so important for us to meditate on again and again.
When Jesus speaks these words, he is still reeling from the long journey to the hill of his execution, Golgotha, the place of skulls. He has borne the instrument of his torture and death on his back, falling three times under its terrible weight, the weight of humanity’s sins. The terrible bite and sting of the iron nails must have been unbearable. But that was only the physical pain. Now, he is also overwhelmed by the psychological and spiritual pain of being suspended on that cross between the silence of heaven and the rejection of earth. The pain must have been excruciating, far beyond anything we can imagine. And yet, his thoughts are for others, not for himself. “Forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”
Here is the truth in its starkest form. Most of those who jeered him along the way, or who stood around the three crosses sometimes shouting questions dripping with sarcasm, or those who were there simply for curiosity, to watch the spectacle, were truly ignorant of who this Man was that was being crucified before them. How many people today, who argue against God, or jeer him with sarcasm, are utterly ignorant of who Jesus is? They, like so many of us, were simply sheep following the crowd. They really did not know what they were doing. Their guilt was not as great as that of the The Chief Priests, the Pharisees, or Pilate. But their ignorance was more culpable than that of the crowds. Still, when we hear these words of Jesus, we must understand that he is asking the Father to forgive them too.
But, and here is the deepest truth; those words are prayed for you and me too. How many times, in utter ignorance, have we sinned against God? How many times have we known, to some degree, that we were sinning and, yet, continued to do it out of false pride, or out of a fear of some kind? These are questions we can only answer for ourselves. Jesus knows our hearts. He knows them at their deepest levels, deeper even than we know ourselves. His love for us is greater than all of the physical, psychological, and spiritual pain he was enduring on the cross. He was suspended there for that very reason—to forgive us our sins committed in ignorance, even those that we did with full knowledge. But it is our love, our faith that is being tested here too. Do we accept the fact of our sinfulness? More importantly, do we accept the truth, the reality of the Father’s forgiveness, offered to us in Jesus’ excruciating death on the cross?
Father, in our brokenness, we cry out to you for forgiveness. In your Son, Jesus, we see your love for us in action, in all of its powerful force. May we grow in humility before your great love, and turn away from all those things that take us away from you. We pray, as always, in the power of Jesus’ name. Amen!
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