The First Word from the Cross, Forgiveness:
Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
It is not surprising that Jesus’ first Word on the Cross is a prayer addressed to God. More striking is the fact that it is a prayer on behalf of those who have put him there. In a truly remarkable way this simple sentence, uttered in this context, perfectly integrates the two ‘great’ commandments – love God and love your neighbour. In the midst of intense humiliation, extreme pain and the prospect of death, Jesus turns to God in love for his ‘neighbours’. The ‘neighbours’ for whom he prays on this occasion are those who have humiliated and tortured him, so his words recall the question that prompts the story of the Good Samaritan -- Who is my neighbour? -- and thereby signals the rejection of those limits that the category of ‘neighbour’ so easily implies. In the light of the Cross, we come to see that the command to love my neighbour, and the seemingly far more demanding command to love my enemies, in the end amount to the same thing. Thus the first word from the Cross exemplifies the attitude Jesus has all this time been urging on his followers.
This simple sentence, however, leaves us with two questions. Who exactly is ‘them’ for whom forgiveness is sought, and in what sense do ‘they’ not know what they are doing? The answer to the first question directs our attention beyond the relatively small number of people who arrested, condemned, tortured Jesus, and nailed him to the Cross. It includes the people in the crowd, both those who shouted “Crucify him” and those who stood in silence near the Cross. Perhaps it even includes the people whom one of the Gospels describes as ‘also present, watching from a distance’. Since few of us are prone to violence and physical cruelty, it is these people, on the periphery of the event, with whom we can more easily identify. And indeed, truth be told, probably most of the things about which we feel guilty, embarrassed or ashamed are not actions and events that we have instigated, but occasions on which we have merely been silent or complicit. The uncharitable thought that sides with the strong against the weak, the truth that goes unsaid for fear of rejection or rebuke, the helping hand that it is too inconvenient to offer, these all put us in the category of the Levite rather than the robbers on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The traditional form of confession in the Prayer Book reflects this when it places confessing ‘what we have left undone’ ahead of ‘what we have done’.
This still leaves us with the second question. In what sense did the instigators, agents, supporters and passive witnesses of the Crucifixion not know what they were doing? Did they not feel the hatred, contempt or fear that motivated them? Didn’t they see blood flowing from the lashes and the thorns? Didn’t they hear the nails smashing through bone? Of course they did! So what is it they didn’t know? The answer is, they didn’t know the true significance of what they were doing and seeing. They saw these as necessary steps in preventing a destructive rebellion, or in defending Judaism, or as merely going along with what everybody thought. But unbeknownst to them, this Crucifixion was not simply one more instance, among many, of extreme brutality in a brutal world. It was an attack upon the sacred, upon the holy of holies. It was the epicentre of an age-old struggle between good and evil.
Could they have known this? Not Pilate, not the Roman soldiers certainly, not the crowd. Perhaps the better educated Jews could have been expected to see and hear the resonances between Jesus and Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’, and so have some dim awareness of who Jesus really was. Yet even the disciples, who had been with him throughout his ministry, didn’t see this, and fled in fear. It was only with hindsight, after the event, in the wake of the Resurrection that those involved could know what they had done. At that point, of course, they had done it. All there could be then, was forgiveness.
So it remains, and often is for us. Take the present crisis. Political leaders, government officials, and the general public alike do not really know what they are doing. Necessarily, they have to rely on surmise, prediction, instinct, cooperation. Measures put in place to contain the spread of disease will undoubtedly result in considerable damage to lives and livelihoods. Possibly this is for the best, possibly not. If ever we know, it can only be with hindsight. It may be that, despite the best intentions, we all prove to have been agents of, and complicit in, immense but ultimately unnecessary suffering and loss, with repercussions that resonate for decades, and greatly exceed any risk they may have served to reduce. Jesus’ first Word from the Cross, then, invites us to acknowledge this. For all the differences between the world of the New Testament and ours, we are not so far from the biblical characters it is easy to condemn.
Given we know, as they did not, the significance of the Crucifixion, there ought to be this difference, though. They did not think they needed the forgiveness Jesus asked for them. If we are honest, we know that, however ‘right’ our course of action may feel, forgiveness may be just what we will come to need when it is too late to undo what we have done. Yet we also know that at that point, Jesus will plead for us too.
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