Seven Last Words: Forgive Them
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34)
The world is exploding with differences.
In the news, we see the clash of classes, civilizations, races, religions, and sexes. We, as Westerners, are taught to fear the Muslim world, buying into a narrative of a war between the way of liberty and enlightenment versus bigotry and terrorism.
Yet, in on our own soil we see wars of other kinds: white versus black, citizens versus immigrants, straight versus LGTBQ, Christian versus secularization, Republican versus Democrat, right versus left, so on and so forth.
The church, particularly conservative churches, has been particularly productive at reinforcing these differences. Christians have been taught to fear the scientific establishment because of evolution, to be militant against same-sex marriage as it is perceived as a threat to the lives of our children, against Muslims for terrorist actions against the West, against Democrats/liberals for insisting on secularized human rights, so on and so forth. We are quick to cast blame for our dwindling cultural power.
The binaries are endless, and there is a less than obvious reason why: we tell ourselves we are unique. I am special, therefore I am different. I am special, therefore I take priority over another. In a world that preaches the gospel of individualism, everything becomes the war of differences: us versus them.
I am more important than you. If you don’t agree, you have done me violence. If I don’t act against this, I do violence to my own uniqueness.
In this scheme the world is at war, not always with guns, but with ideologies. This is a great feud over not necessarily land, but identities, places of privilege of any sort, from political power to hold the presidency to merely having the right to have a cake made for your wedding.
There is a reason why we begin contemplating through the cross by beginning with these words. It is because if we don’t come to the cross realizing it is God showing us that he is forgiving them, not remembering sins against them, that he is reconciliation itself, that he is doing everything possible to tangibly show them this, then we get it all wrong.
We often come to the cross with the same us versus them mentality, only God is the “us” and we are the “them”: God is against us, and we are filled with fear at the prospect of an enemy who is more special than us, more powerful than us. If God is primarily wrath, and we are firstly filled with fear in the thought of him. In some accounts the cross becomes the product of a wrathful God, fixing his wrath in order for God to now love sinners. This does not really help the binary: a holy God cannot stand to be with sinners. God remains this God and we remain sinners.
Of course, if God is infinite liberty, however, God could have just waved his hand and forgave all humanity from Adam to the end of time right there in the garden. There is no necessity in God for him to have to die at the cross in order to forgive us. The very fact that he wanted to go to the cross shows his mind was made up, that his first intention towards sinners was forgiveness and love. His holy power could have been demonstrated by saying, as Jesus did to the paralyzed man, “Your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:9) at the first sin, but he didn’t. Jesus through the cross wanted to show us forgiveness, not merely tell us we were forgiven.
Here Jesus is suffering the cross because of the hard-heartedness of people. Jesus was God’s representative. Jesus was the embodiment of God, the Son of God. What Jesus says, God says. What you do to Jesus, you do to God. And so by crucifying Jesus, the people are committing the worst act in all history: they are executing the Son of God, God himself, for coming and preaching that God was now with us.
God did not set us the binary “us versus them.” We did.
Such an unthinkable evil demands the most exacting punishment. Or one would think. But here we see God’s representation request something: Christ said, “Forgive them, they know not what they do.” At the most unthinkable evil in the world, we see God’s unimaginable grace. Jesus praying for his oppressors as they murder him.
Of course, we might ask, “them, who?” Who did he mean? I cannot be us, for our own instinct of self-justification causes us to excuses ourselves from something the seems obviously unbecoming of our natural goodness. It must obviously be the disciples that betrayed and abandoned him. Or did he mean the Pharisees that sat there mocking, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself”? Or the Romans in their innovative yet senseless brutality? Or is it the mindless masses that gave up on him?
These are all good answers, and we would like to think that these are it. We would like to think that we are like Pilate who thought he could wash his hands of the blood he was about to unjustly spill, but to be a son of Adam or a daughter of Eve is to know that we all could have participated and did perpetrate the crime of the cross. All humanity stands condemned with the “them.”
We have the same weak and corruptible hearts that shouted “Crucify! Crucify!” so shortly after proclaiming “Hosanna! Hosanna!”
We have the same mocking voices that question that if he was the messiah, why didn’t he get off that cross?
We have the same cowardliness that caused Peter to deny his Lord three times, where he previously pledged to die for him.
We have same cruel minds in our heads that devised terrible forms of execution like the cross. The same heart that beats in human chests hammers the nails into Jesus’ hands.
We are them.
In all the wars of differences, in this first and foremost paradigmatic instance, we are the them; we are no different.
We set up the differences and we causes the hurt, or we claim someone else did it and someone else did the crime, who, nevertheless, is just like us. We claim superiority, which in turn leads to violence of other kinds. In the long run, whatever claim to moral superiority we might set up, sooner or later, we will forsake that standard. If we create a binary of us (good) versus them (evil) we will find ourselves sooner or later implicated in our own hypocrisy.
To be human is to be implicated in the great fall into ignorance, exclusion, and violence that characterizes our present existence.
We know this every time we see a poor person on the street, who is there purely because he was born into a place of abuse, where we to stable homes.
We know this every second we look at the TV screen, condemning the actions of terrors by saying, “I hope they blow them all away.”
We know this every time we see a starving family in the third world, and ignore them to go home to warm homes with satellite TV, smart phones, designer clothes, etc.
We know this every time we take more than what we need, say more than what we should, or care less than what we could.
We, especially as Westerners, exist because of a violent oppressive system we and generations before us, created and perpetuate, refusing to dismantle because of the fear of loosing our modern comforts.
We could keep Christ on the cross if it meant keeping our IPhones. We know this because we starve innocent children for our clothes, kill middle-easterners for our oil, oppress and scapegoat minorities to protect our SUV’s.
We are the “them.” Ours is a depravity of omission, negligence, and decadence.
And yet we encounter not just the depravity of our hearts at the moments of the cross, but more importantly, the heart of Jesus, true heart of God, the heart of forgiveness. “Father,” he prayed, “forgive them, they know not what they do.”
Whoever the “them” is, he forgives: an all-knowing God, knows that they did not know. A God capable of infinite wrath, chooses to expend empathy in the moments of human apathy.
It seems obvious that the people did know that they were committing a terrible crime, but the heart of God is one not of exacting judgment, but gracious benefit.
We so often come to church assuming God is our enemy. We assume he is our enemy because we tell ourselves we have done unthinkable evil, wrong choices the we cannot even believe we have done ourselves. We are limited, so we assume God’s grace is limited. And yet when we look at the cross, we see a God with a heart full of understanding and compassion, a God so unthinkably good that while we do the worst, he is always trying to offer us better.
If we have the humility to accept his goodness, he calls us to the freedom to forgive those around us that have done us wrong.
As we come here, we recognize our continual need for forgiveness.
We recognize we are the “them,” all of us, everywhere, citizens of a world in darkness that showed its vicious hostility to the light.
Yet you prayed for us, when we were still your enemy.
You prayed for the salvation of every person whose heart was in darkness.
And so the Light came into the Darkness and the Darkness could not overcome, Hatred could not overpower Forgiveness.
So, we also confess that we know that you taught us that it is by forgiving they we are forgiven, that we are in the light to bring the light to all darkness.
Lord, you showed us the essence of humility and selflessness as you prayed for your enemies while hanging there dying.
Jesus, teach us to pray for our enemies, for all the “them’s” we encounter.