Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
All dressed in his imperial splendor, the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate sits in judgment of Jesus. Surrounding Pilate is a group of Jesus' accusers. It would seem that the governor doesn’t know what to make of Jesus. He appears to be just some kind of religious teacher, but as he listens to the charges he begins to see Jesus in a different light. Maybe this Jewish teacher is really a threat to the stability of his province. If the charges are true, then he will need to take the threat seriously, and that means condemning his prisoner to die on a cross. He comes to this decision after a night of debate and his decision is final; there will be no appeal. It's interesting that Pilate tries to wash his hands of this sordid affair. Isn't that the way it is with the rich and the powerful? They don't like to get their hands dirty.
It is strange to watch Jesus stand before this seat of judgment. Only a few days earlier he'd been acclaimed by the crowds as a deliverer; now he's being sentenced to die a criminal's death on a cross. From our reading of the Gospels, Jesus doesn’t seem to be the type, and yet maybe there is more to the story than meets the eye. Since executions were always public spectacles, the soldiers would have led the prisoners, including Jesus of Nazareth, through the streets of Jerusalem, toward the place of execution. It's a place known to Luke simply as The Skull. Exhausted by the previous night's ordeal, Jesus falls under the weight of the crossbeam. Being in a hurry to finish the job, the soldiers force a pilgrim from Cyrene, a man named Simon, to carry the beam the rest of the way up the hill. That's the way it was in Roman times. The soldiers could force you into labor whenever necessary. Jesus had even commented on this: "If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile" (Matthew 5:41).
Once they arrive at the execution site, the soldiers lay Jesus out on the cross and nail his body to the posts. They hoist him up into the air so that he would die a slow, humiliating, and painful death. The Romans used this method of execution because they believed that it was a deterrent to rebellion. Watching such a cruel death must have given any potential rebel cause to think twice about engaging the Romans. Jesus may have been deemed "deserving" of this special treatment, but he is not alone in his death. In the words of Isaiah, he "was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors" (Isaiah 53:12). He dies in the company of two others, Isaiah's transgressors. We never learn the nature of their crimes, but perhaps they had been partners with Barabbas, the one released by Pilate, at the request of the people. It's quite likely that these two men had been arrested for stirring up trouble in Jerusalem, just like Barabbas. Maybe they'd killed a soldier of occupation. Theirs was an insurgency designed to run out an oppressive foreign invader. It was for persons like them that the Romans devised this horrific form of execution, and Jesus has been caught in the web. So here between the insurgents, hangs the prince of peace.
As Jesus hung there on the cross, a crown of thorns sat uncomfortably on his head. The crown has symbolic value, but it's also designed to inflict pain. As the thorns dig into his forehead, the blood trickles down his face. His back bleeding from the flogging he had endured during the night adds to his agony. But it was the crush of his weight that forced him to struggle with ever more difficulty to remain upright, which caused him the most physical distress. Still, there he hung, God's suffering servant, the one of whom Isaiah spoke. This one who poured himself out in death "was numbered with the transgressors." (Isaiah. 53:12). Yes, he took his place among us and was counted as one of us, counted as a sinner, and he suffered with us, but for what?
At the foot of the cross one could find a few followers, most of whom were women. Covering their eyes and weeping, they might have moaned out loud, "Oh, how could this happen?" But others jeered at him, both Roman soldier and collaborator from the Jewish establishment. Maybe there were also a few former admirers and some disappointed revolutionaries in this crowd, each voice adding further insult to his humiliation.
Now, as he struggles to catch his breath, Jesus utters his first word from the cross:
"Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
Do you hear these words with a sense of disbelief? How can he say this? How can he forgive his tormentors? Yes, how can anyone forgive the ones who have participated in such an evil deed? But, while we recoil from such a thought, Jesus reaches out to his tormentors and offers them words of forgiveness. As we listen to these strange words, we discover that we are included in them. We too are recipients of Jesus' offer of forgiveness.
The recipients of this gracious offer of forgiveness are many, but Jesus begins with the most obvious offenders, the soldiers sitting at the foot of his cross. These are the ones who have just followed orders and have nailed him to this cross. In truth, they probably didn't understand the consequences of what they were doing. They were just doing their jobs. They'd rather be doing something else, but here they were standing guard over some local rebels. Yes, Jesus was just one more rebel who needed to be taught a lesson. They probably weren't even listening as Jesus offered them forgiveness. Even if they were listening, they probably didn't understand Jesus. As he cries out offering them forgiveness, they are busy dispensing with his clothes. It's possible that these soldiers would periodically look up at him and shout insults at him. But then again, they are simply following orders from on high.
There might have been a few Jewish leaders in the crowd as well. These were the collaborators, the one's granted power, not by the people, but by the occupying forces. They saw themselves as protectors of Israel, and they believed that their act of conspiring with the Roman officials was a defense of their nation. Collaboration helped preserve the status quo, but it also kept the nation alive. Did they know what they were doing? The destruction of Jerusalem just a few decades later would seem to support their position. If Jesus was in fact a rebel, then they would be correct in their actions. But Jesus offers them forgiveness.
Finally, there are the seemingly fickle crowds. According to the gospels, the crowd had at first acclaimed him the messiah. But things changed when he didn’t prove to be the hoped for deliverer. So, disillusioned with him they turned on him and when given a choice by Pilate they chose Barabbas instead of Jesus. Which one would you have chosen? I don't know who I would have picked. I'd probably have picked Barabbas too! After all, he seemed to have more potential as a rebel leader. Surely Barabbas would free his people from Roman domination.
To each of these conspirators Jesus offers a word of forgiveness. From the cross he asks God to wipe the slate clean.
Oh yes, there's one last group that needs to be considered. This final group is much larger than the crowd gathered at the foot of the cross. Its numbers exceed calculation and extend into eternity, for in truth, we're all numbered among those standing there calling for his head. We're like a herd of cattle that’s easily stampeded. We act first and think later. We don't think things through because it's safer to go along with the crowd than it is to act independently. It's by our deeds and even by our omission of deeds that we're led to join in crucifying the Son of God.
Our involvement in this act of violence isn't a matter of Jesus serving as our sacrifice designed to placate an angry God -- as Jonathan Edwards would have us believe. Nor does he die to satisfy God's honor, as Anselm believed. Still, we find ourselves in the judge's chamber crying for his head. We do this whenever we hate our brother or sister, or when we push others aside to take our place at the head of the table. It can happen when we refuse to help the hungry and the thirsty among us, because in saying no to our neighbor, we say no to Jesus. And when we say no, we place him on a cross in the hope that we might be done with him. We have no use for his offer of reconciliation, because we have no use for God. In our own sense of self-righteousness, we choose to nail the one who reveals God's love on a cross.
Jesus' offer is a generous one, even if we're not sure why we're included. We're puzzled with the offer he makes to his tormentors, but why would we be included? After all, how often have we said: "I didn't have anything to do with it. It's not my fault. No, I didn't do anything wrong!" The problem isn't with what I did, but with what I didn't do. Yes, my inaction and my neutrality require divine forgiveness. Perhaps we find these words troubling because they're not consistent with the way we deal with life. To our mind, forgiveness requires a recognition that wrong has been done, a recognition that should be followed by repentance and an apology. To our surprise Jesus seems to offer a blanket word of forgiveness -- a general amnesty. Now, while we might find Jesus' words to be strange, they do comport well with his life and with his teachings. He was a person who welcomed the sinner, the outcast, and the marginalized. Perhaps that's why it's so difficult to hear these words -- we don't put ourselves in the place of those needing forgiveness.
But maybe that's not really the issue that baffles us. Perhaps it's the excuse that Jesus makes for his oppressors that throws us off. It just seems too easy and implausible.
Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
Surely they knew what they were doing. And yet, do we always know what we=re doing?
Theologian Karl Rahner gets it right: "Really they knew it all. But they did not want to know it!" We know what we're doing, but we don't want to face the consequences of our thoughts and actions. We have our excuses, but deep down we know that they're hollow. Nevertheless, Jesus reaches out to us and offers us forgiveness. It's as Isaiah says: he has "made intercession for the transgressors" (Isaiah.53: 12), on behalf of all those who would crucify him -- including me. And so, there, on the cross, Jesus acts as our high priest, interceding for us, the transgressors, and excusing us of our ignorance. He excuses us, however, of the ignorance we have often chosen for ourselves. Why, maybe it’s because we cannot grapple with the depths of our crimes.
If it were I, I don't think I could offer such a gracious word of forgiveness. I would want justice done, or at least I'd want to appeal to a higher authority. But Jesus didn't cry out for justice; instead, he offered gentle words of forgiveness. As we stand before the cross, we benefit from his compassionate words: "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
Excerpted from A Cry from the Cross (CSS, 2008)