In the so-called first word from the cross Jesus says:
Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.
While many early manuscripts omit this quote, Jesus’ words parallel Stephen’s in Acts 7:60 when the latter was also executed. Do you hear how radical these words are? In the time between an evening meal and his crucifixion Jesus had suffered much at the hands of his oppressors. Betrayed by a kiss of a well-loved disciple he was brought before the Sanhedrin and beaten. Dragged before Pilate and Herod, mocked and flogged, he was sentenced by the will of the crowd to death on a cross. The one man who supposedly had the power of life or death over him, washed his hands of the affair. The flogging had left his flesh hanging in ribbons; he collapsed under the weight of his own cross. Now naked, nailed and raised up on a cross as a crowd jeers, he offers his first word:
Forgiveness? This strains credulity! But Jesus wasn’t an ordinary sufferer of injustice. He was the Incarnate God and this cross, a symbol of shame and Roman power would be his instrument of salvation and reconciliation. More than forgiveness being just his first expression from the cross, it was Divine forgiveness that brought him to the cross and nailed him there. Costly as it was, the forgiveness of God is Christ on his cross.
But who is Jesus forgiving by these words? All those whose part in this drama nailed him there:
- the Jews put him there. Centuries of antisemitism obscure the fact that the authors of the New Testament all would self describe themselves as Jews and saw continuity between Israel’s Messianic hope and the cross of Christ. But the Jewish leaders and the Jewish people who had gathered in Jerusalem that Passover played their part in Jesus’ death. It was the Jewish leaders who had Jesus arrested in the garden, accusing him of blasphemy and turning him over to Rome to be executed. It was the crowds who shouted, “Crucify him!” sending Jesus to his death. Without Jesus’ arrest and the crowds sealing his fate, Jesus would not have died. Not like this.
But there is no excuse for centuries of injustice towards the Jews for crucifying Jesus (i.e. the pattern of antisemitic rage in the wake of European ‘passion plays’). The first word from Jesus for his people is forgiveness. Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing. In Jesus’ final moments his thoughts were not of vengeance or righting injustice. But with arms extended in love, nailed to a cross, he spoke only of forgiveness.
- Pilate put him there. A governor whose cruelty was well known, sometimes gets a free pass from Christians for his part in Jesus’s death. After all, wasn’t he only guilty of pressure from the crowd? Is not his only crime cowardice in condemning an innocent man? He washed his hands, but that didn’t make them clean. When a representative of the State absolves himself, may the reader be suspicious! If Jesus was ‘King of the Jews’ than Caesar was not. When the crowds shout “We have no King but Caesar! (John 19:15)” Pilate is forced to choose between his fidelity to justice and good order and his faithfulness to his emperor. He allied himself with the power of Rome. Of course Jesus himself didn’t put the brunt of the injustice on Pilate, but his captors, “The one who has handed me over too you is guilty of the greater sin(John 19:11b).” But the crucifixion could not have happened without the willing complicty of Pilate in ordering Jesus’ execution.
As he hung on the cross, bearing the punishment of failed revolutionaries and subversives, Jesus forgave. Forgive them Father for they do not know what they are doing. Among those forgiven for their part was Pilate, a Roman governor too invested in the Roman power structure to display much character or courage in the face of a crowd.
- The Romans did it. Those who carried out Pilate’s charge, did it with zeal and enthusiasm. It was they that dressed him in purple, beat and whipped him, divided his clothes, placed a crown of thorns on his head and subjected him to cruelty and taunts even as they devised his bitter end. Some nameless pagan soldier took the hand of God and nailed to a tree, killing an innocent man who had poured out his life in love for his people. Jesus had healed, set people free from demonic oppression, taught the way of love and virtue and this is where it got him.
For these, for all of these: Forgive them Father for they do not know what they are doing.
- We did it. You did it. I did it. Jesus died on the cross so that he may save us from ourselves, our sin, our sad attempts to be our own God. Each of us have gone our own way, rejecting God and his offer of life and freedom. We were dead in our trespasses and sins. God in his mercy, because of his great love saved us through Christ and his cross. You may not have arrested Jesus, pronounced sentence and driven the nails, but Jesus died because of you. He died for you. In a costly display of divine Love he showed us in a visceral way what forgiveness looks like. Father Forgive them for they know not what they do.
As we behold the crucified Christ we see God’s love and mercy poured out for us. If the son has set us free we are free indeed. Fully forgiven living in him!