Father, Forgive Them (February 21, 2021)
Luke 23: 32-34a
Father Forgive Them
Today we begin a sermon series looking at the dying words of Christ, typically called the Seven Last Words of Christ; the seven phrases that the Gospels record Jesus having said on the cross. Now I will mention that not all seven are in any one gospel, they’re spread out among all the gospels, so we are looking at all of the ones that are mentioned in any gospel anywhere and we’re putting them in an order that I think makes sense and kind of trying to look at them. And we’ll look at what each one might mean for us as we go along through this time of Lent.
Jesus‘s words are important. We know that these words are important for us. Not just because they are the last words of Christ and are likely very intentional words that are chosen to give us a picture of who Jesus is and who God is. But also because these words would’ve taken great effort and it would’ve caused great pain just to say. When someone is being crucified there’s a lot of pressure that builds up in the chest area, the diaphragm just gets crushed as they suffer through this event. And in order to speak you have to have a clear diaphragm, and so they would have to physically pull themselves up by their wrists to speak and then let themselves back down. This would’ve been extremely painful. And Jesus chooses to go through that extra pain, to go to that effort, to say these things to us. We probably should pay attention.
But also we recognize that the people who were at the foot of the cross, who are listening to Jesus and experiencing all of this, they remember these words. Because the Gospels are not written for at least 40 years after Jesus’s actual death and eventual resurrection. And so these people remember these words, they internalize them, and they remember them well enough that they’re able to then tell the writers of the Gospels, most of which are not actually eyewitnesses. And so these words took great effort from Jesus, are intentionally chosen by Jesus, and are profound enough to be remembered by the people who were eyewitnesses. We should definitely pay attention. And so throughout these next six weeks going through Lent, we’re going to look at the words of Jesus as he hangs on the cross, and dive into each one in order to try to understand the lessons that the Spirit has to teach us with each one of these words this year.
And the first one we’re gonna look at today is the phrase “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Now, I have a feeling I’m gonna say this every single week, but this is some of my favorite words of Jesus. I repeat this often to myself because it is profound, and means so much to my life and my experience following Jesus. First, let’s look at who exactly is the “them” here. Jesus is praying here that God would forgive someone, some group of someone’s. Who is this group of people? Who is the them that Jesus is praying that God would forgive?
One possible “them” would be the criminals who are at Jesus’s right and Jesus’s left, the only people by the way who have done any wrong according to that particular day and that particular time. Maybe Jesus is praying that God forgive the ones on his right in his left; the thieves. Now, it would be difficult to say that they didn’t know what they were doing. But one of the things we understand now is that oftentimes thievery is not something someone wants to do, rather it is something they’re driven to do. We now understand that the situation around them is such that there’s no other choice that they have, so they have to resort to stealing from others. Maybe Jesus understood that, and so Jesus is saying “you know they didn’t know what they were doing when they got into the situation, so forgive them for taking it to the ultimate conclusion.” Maybe Jesus is talking about the thieves hanging next to him and saying “Father, forgive them.”I certainly think that is possible.
Maybe Jesus is talking about the soldiers. These are the ones who are actively doing things to him in that moment after all, the ones were actively killing him. And I think of all the options, these are the ones that are most likely to qualify for the phrase “they know not what they do.” The soldiers are following orders. They are not Jewish, they haven’t read the Scriptures, they have no reason to believe that this man that they’re there looking at is anything other than what their officers have told them: that he is an insurrectionist that needs to be put down for the good of Rome. So even though they’re the ones who are doing the most sinning in this particular time, they also are the ones who most do not know what they are doing. And maybe Jesus is praying that God would forgive them. For, even though they’re there doing this horrible thing, there’s grace to be had in the midst of that. So maybe Jesus is talking about the soldiers. That is certainly possible.
Maybe Jesus is talking about the crowds. The crowds were sitting around, the ordinary people of Jerusalem who gathered together earlier that very day to shout “crucify!” in Pilate’s courtroom now have followed him to the foot of the cross and are jeering at him and teasing him. And they continue to do these things that hurt him. Maybe Jesus is praying that God would forgive the crowds because they don’t know what they are doing. They don’t know what they are doing in the sense that they’ve been led astray by their leadership for so long. Throughout his entire ministry, Jesus has had compassion upon the ordinary people, no matter what their situation is. And why would the situation be any different now? Maybe Jesus is praying that God would have compassion for the ordinary people of the crowd who were sitting around him and have been led astray.
Also if any if history is any guide, what we see is that often in the face of dictatorships or tyrannical regimes like the Romans, people will do things that they don’t necessarily want to do or that they think might be wrong simply because they’re afraid that they’re going to be the ones up there next. So maybe Jesus who knows the inner heart of everyone in that crowd, and sees people who are jeering at him, but who are only jeering at him to show the Romans that they’re not with that guy; to make sure that they’re not the ones that are up there next. So Jesus, seeing that, has compassion upon them, and prays that his father forgive them because they’re too scared to really be able to think through what they’re doing. That is certainly possible.
Now, I definitely think that Jesus is talking about the religious leaders. These are the ones who have been leading the people astray, the ones that in my opinion are the most guilty for the killing of Jesus. They’re the ones that brought it all about: they’re the ones who forced Pilate’s freshly washed hands, they’re the ones that whipped the crowd into a frenzy. But maybe Jesus is looking at them and realizing that they too have been led astray by the leaders that came before them, they too have been led to this point, they’ve been corrupted and become spiritually blind. They’re not seeing what they’re doing, they’re not thinking this through, they’re not praying; they’re just acting upon impulse, upon emotion. And so maybe Jesus is praying that God would forgive the religious leaders because they don’t really know what they’re doing either. That’s also certainly possible.
I think that Jesus is probably talking about all of these people when Jesus says “Father, forgive them.” But I think Jesus is also talking about us. I think that when Jesus says “Father, forgive them,” that “them” includes all of humanity. That “them” includes you and me; and that “them” includes those that you don’t like too, the people you might consider to be enemies, the people you might consider to be evil. Jesus is praying that God would forgive them: you, your neighbor, that one person that you don’t like, all of humanity. Jesus is praying for forgiveness for all of it. All of time is being brought together in the cross, and Jesus is asking to forgive.
We all need forgiveness. Every single human on the planet needs forgiveness. We sin more than we realize. We have moments where we do not know what we are doing, moments where we’re pursuing a path that looks good but it’s not the path we were intended to go on and we are missing the mark. God seeks to forgive us these moments. Remember, the Gospels focus is on grace. The focus of the gospel is not on sin, the focus of Jesus is not on sin. Not to say that Jesus doesn’t care about it, or that the Gospels don’t ever touch on it, but that the focus is always on grace. Every time there is sin discussed there is grace given. The grace of God is the primary message of the good news. And remember the first words of Jesus on the cross are not “God, convince them they are sinners,” but rather “Father, forgive them.”
God‘s grace is a gift. It is a gift that is unearned, indeed a gift that we cannot earn, and yet a gift that is freely given to us as God comes to the altar to meet with us, and seek to reconcile and rebuild us. Remember that Jesus prayed for these people while many of them were still jeering at him, were still teasing him, were still torturing him; yet Jesus still prayed that God would forgive them. He doesn’t wait for them to realize what they’re doing, but literally prays that God would forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing. Every month during communion I say the good news can be defined by the fact that Jesus died for us while we were still sinners, which proves God‘s love for each and every one of us. And that kind of applies here too: Christ died while they were still not knowing what they were doing, while they were still unrepentant, and asked God to forgive them. And it still proves God‘s love for them, and by extension for us. If you ever think that what you’ve done is unforgivable, if you think that God can’t possibly love you after the sin you’ve committed, that you must’ve completely severed that relationship; I want you to stop and ask yourself if what you’ve done is worse than torturing and killing God himself. Because I’m willing to bet it’s not. Nothing I have done is worse than that. And yet, while he was dying, God rose up and forgave the ones who did commit that.
In every church that I have been in, and every church that I will lead, somewhere up front there’s a cross. Here it’s directly behind me. It might be on the altar, it might be on the vestments, it might be where it is here, but there’s gonna be a cross up there somewhere front and center. Because the cross reminds us of God‘s grace. The cross reminds us that sin is real, and that sin has consequences; that God‘s grace is not cheap. But the cross is empty. The cross is empty in this church to remind us that although Grace is not cheap, the price has already been paid. And we see that in the story as we begin to look at Jesus on the cross.
Lastly, we see Jesus models for us forgiveness. Jesus didn’t have to pray this out loud. He could’ve just prayed that God would forgive them silently. But he doesn’t. Instead, he raised himself up, at great personal pain, and said it out loud. I think he did that because he wanted to be overheard; yes, to reassure the people sitting at the foot of the cross and to reassure the people who did this once they realized what they had done. Many who sat at the cross leave changed, especially in the account from Mark. Yes, to reassure them. But also so they could be written down, so that we could hear it. Not only to reassure us as we read and meditate on the Scripture, but also to remember what Jesus did so that we are encouraged to do so as well. “Our Father, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Like the unforgiving servant parable teaches, we need to not be like the unforgiving servant who was forgiven on an unpayable debt, but then goes and demands a small debt be paid. Rather, we are reminded we are forgiven, and we are to forgive.
Jesus said from the cross “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And that refers to many, but it refers to you for sure. And so I want you to pray that prayer, to hear Jesus praying that prayer, but instead of “them” I want you to insert your name. “Father, forgive [Michael], for [he] knows not what [he] does.” I’ll tell you that prayer is true. I know not what I do, and God has forgiven me. And God has forgiven you. Pray that prayer. Remind yourself of it every time you need it as we enter into these 40 days of preparation. Amen, and praise be to God.