The first ‘word’ of the seven so-called ‘words’ of Jesus from the cross is the most extraordinary: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23.34a). In the context of so much pain this cry for forgiveness is truly amazing, Just imagine the agony of the crushed bone, the ripped sinew, the hands nailed to the cross. Imagine too the sense of rejection as also the utter injustice of the situation. Accusation, condemnation, recrimination, all would have been in order. Instead Jesus prays for forgiveness.
Strangely the commentators have little to say about the surprising content of this first word from the cross. Instead they focus on the authenticity of the prayer – was it part of the original text of Luke or was it added later? The early manuscripts are divided: these words of Jesus are present in some, and absent in others. In the end most commentators believe that Luke did indeed pen these words of Jesus, but that a later copyist omitted them on the grounds that he felt that God could never have forgiven the Jews for crucifying the Saviour – for him as for many other early Christians the fall and destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 was a clear sign that God did not forgive the Jews.
But in the words of Raymond E. Brown, a distinguished American Roman Catholic scholar, the real problem is not “the absence of this prayer from the text, but the failure to incorporate it into ones heart has been the real problem”. In this respect David Flusser, a German Orthodox Jew academic, drew attention to the way in which the Crusaders quoted to the Jews an apocryphal word of the Lord, ‘There will yet come the day when my sons will come and revenge my blood’. Yet, he said, in their Latin New Testament the Crusaders could find presented as a genuine word of the Lord Luke 23.34a – a word that should have given them a very different outlook!
Actually, within the immediate context of the verse, the soldiers were the focus of Jesus’ prayer. In the first place it was the soldiers who did not know what they were doing. Yes, of course they knew that they were crucifying Jesus, but they did not know that Jesus was the Son of God. But we cannot limit this prayer to the soldiers alone. The object of the prayer includes all who had a hand in the crucifixion: Jews and Romans, rulers and the people. None of them really understood the dreadfulness of their actions. .
One thing which I had never noticed until recently was that this first ‘word’ from the Cross may well have been not a ‘one-off’ prayer. This is not clear in our English versions where “Then Jesus said” is the standard translation. But strictly speaking the Greek ‘imperfect’ tense (elegon) Luke uses should be translated: ‘Jesus was saying’. The tense suggests an ongoing action in the past, rather than a one off action. Jesus may have repeatedly prayed for forgiveness as each of the nails was being driven in. Is there a lesson here for us if we are to forgive others? Where pain and hurt are ongoing, sometimes we need to forgive and forgive and forgive. Forgiveness is often an ongoing process.
Notice too that here we have what William Willimon, an American Methodist preacher, calls ‘pre-emptive forgiveness’, for Jesus prays for forgiveness before the perpetrators of this crime acknowledge their wrongdoing. The unconditional nature of this love of Jesus displayed on the cross is truly amazing – and has implications for the way in which we love and we forgive.
At a time when I was struggling with this issue of forgiveness – I had been the victim of what I perceived had been a grave injustice – my father wrote me a long letter, which included the following reflections:
The heart of the Gospel is that Jesus endured ‘the contradiction of sinners’ (Hebs 12.3) and did not wait for hate to change to love, but continued in love while rejected and hate persisted.
The prayer, ‘Father, forgive them…’ was prayed in the act of crucifixion – and persisted in the resurrection. ‘Beginning at Jerusalem’ (Luke 24.47), the place of rejection, was part of the missionary commission implying, ‘for I love them still, though guilty’. You have seen the memorial altar of Coventry in the old ruins of the original cathedral. When it was first erected the words were, ‘Father forgive them’. I saw them with my own eyes. The next time I went, the word ‘them’ was erased. This was clearly due to recognition that we are also sinners, for whom Christ died, and having been forgiven for our sins we are called to unconditional forgiveness. That is made possible by unconditional love. The Sermon on the Mount illustrates the principle before the world saw it in action. It’s extraordinarily presented in Luke 6.27-36 where the last sentence is instructive: whereas Matthew has it, ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’(Matt 5.48) – an impossible standard to attain, Luke has ‘Be merciful as…’ and that is chesed [a Hebrew word], grace to enemies and sinners, as God shows us all.
Certainly to know that grace demands repentance from the sinner, but the overwhelming fact that wins us sinners is to learn that God still loves us in our sin and rebellion, for the cross is a demonstration of the everlasting love and mercy of God. And that is what we are called to do.
One final thought. As I was meditating on this prayer of Jesus, I was struck by the way in which Jesus addressed God: ‘Father’, almost certainly ‘Abba Father’. It was out of the security of his relationship with God, that Jesus was able to pray for forgiveness. As Peter later commented: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (1 Peter 2.23).