FATHER, FORGIVE THEM (Luke 23:33-34): 31 March 2010 (Lent)
Reflections on the First of the Seven Last Words
Church of the Gesu
Ateneo de Manila University
31 March 2010
And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:33-34)
I don’t know about you, but I have a little problem with these first words of Jesus on the cross. I have a couple of questions.
First of all: Who’s ‘them’? Who is He actually forgiving? Our Lord could be referring to several groups of people who have wronged him before and during the crucifixion, people responsible for what happened in different ways and in varying degrees. Who could these people be?
Second question: What does he mean ‘they don’t know what they’re doing’? What does that mean?
If we try to figure out who he’s referring to, several groups of people immediately come to mind. I can think of five groups actually.
First, there are the Roman soldiers, those immediately responsible for carrying out his crucifixion plus all the other things that went with it—like the scourging at the pillar, the crowning of thorns, etc. To this group I also include Pontius Pilate, who ordered the execution. These are the people who wronged Jesus because they thought they were just “doing their job.”
Then there are the Jewish leaders, the priests, the Pharisees, and the scribes. Actually, they would have crucified Jesus themselves if Roman law had not prohibited them from doing so. These are the ones who had schemed and plotted to get Jesus the death sentence. Wasn’t it, after all, the high priest Annas who rationalized their plan by claiming that: “It’s better for one man to die than for an entire nation to perish!” So they plotted against our Lord in the name of their country. They were just loving their country. Of course despite their lip service to patriotism, we know that they were really jealous and resentful of Jesus and worried about their own self-interests. In other words, they were really just “looking out for themselves.”
There is also the crowd—the crowd that used to follow Jesus around, even willing to go hungry for him—but now, with just a little prodding from their leaders, chose to free Barabbas, a hardened criminal, over Jesus. Before, they cried “Hosannas” to our Lord; but then they changed their tune. Now they shouted, “Crucify him!” Their change of mind, their change of allegiance shows that they’re the type of people who were just “going for the highest bidder.”
Of course there is Judas, the traitor, one of Jesus’ closest and most trusted disciples. The Gospel writers insinuate that he betrayed the Lord just for the money—those pieces of silver he received in return for the information he gave the Jewish leaders about Jesus’ whereabouts that Holy Thursday. It’s hard for me to believe that that was all Judas betrayed Jesus for. We don’t know for sure, but could it be the case that he did it because he actually thought by getting him arrested, Jesus would be forced to reveal himself as the true Messiah? If that’s the case, then Judas wronged our Lord by presuming that he was just doing him a favor.
Finally, there are our Lord’s disciples, who have conveniently gone into hiding when things begin to go wrong for their Master. Let’s not forget Peter, who, as the Lord predicted, had just denied knowing Jesus three times. These are the Lord’s “fair-weathered friends”—and they wronged our Lord because they were understandably scared to do anything else.
Five groups of people with their reasons and excuses for doing the things they did. When Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them,” certainly he had all of them on his mind. Our Lord had every right to condemn them, but instead he forgave them all.
What’s more intriguing for me is our Lord’s claim that these people didn’t know what they were doing. What does he mean “they don’t know what they’re doing”? Did he mean that if they had known that he was the real Messiah, the actual Son of God, they wouldn’t have done what they done? But ignorance is no excuse. In fact, even if Jesus were not the Messiah, what they all did was still wrong.
I don’t know but it sounds to me like Jesus is just making excuses for the people he’s trying to forgive. This is actually so typical of God: God has been known to do this quite often in Scripture. He is quick to change his mind about destroying entire cities at the slightest excuse. He is just so eager to forgive. He is the same here on the cross.
There are a few things we can draw from this reflection: First, we can recognize all these people in ourselves. The types of people that Jesus forgave from the cross—they’re all inside us. These different groups don’t represent types of sins, as much as roots of our sinfulness: our temptations and rationalizations, our scripts about the wrong things we do. As I go through the different groups, it might be helpful for us to do a little Examination of Conscience by asking ourselves which group or which groups we most identify with.
• We’ve done wrong because like Pilate and the Roman soldiers, we say we’re just doing our job. How many times have we rationalized doing something by saying that we’re just following orders?
• We’ve done wrong because like the Jewish leaders, we’re just looking out for ourselves. How many times have we ended up hurting other people because of our own self-interests?
• We’ve done wrong because like the fickle crowd, we prefer go for the highest bidder. How many times have we traded our principles and values for a better deal?
• We’ve done wrong because like Judas, we presume to think we’re doing other people a favor. How many times have we harmed other people because we did not respect them enough and wanted to run their lives and make their decisions for them?
• We’ve done wrong because like Peter and the other fair-weathered followers of Jesus, we’re just plain too scared to do anything. How many times have we looked the other way or pretended not to see because we were too afraid of getting involved?
When Jesus forgives on the cross, He forgives us too: the Romans in us, the Pharisees in us, the Barabas-lovers in us, the Judas in us, and the Peter in us.
All this reveals a couple of important things about God. The first words uttered by Jesus on the cross show us the kind of God we have.
First: He is a God who forgives even when it hurts. As we know, it’s not easy to forgive especially those who are dearest to us because the wounds they inflict cut the deepest. This Holy Week God wants us to do the same. Are we being asked to forgive even if it hurts?
Secondly: Our God is a God who makes excuses for us. The excuse the Lord comes up with on the cross is pretty lame, but it doesn’t matter. He wants to give us the benefit of the doubt because He is so eager to forgive us. This Lenten season the Lord invites us to do the same. The people who may have wronged us—can we also give them the benefit of the doubt? Are we also willing to make excuses for them? Could God be asking us to forgive even if we don’t understand?
At this point we can spend some time asking ourselves: Which one of the following do you want the Lord to forgive this Lenten season?
a) the Pontius Pilate and Roman soldiers in me
b) the Pharisees in me
c) the Crowd in me
d) the Judas in me
e) the Peter in me