The following message was shared at the Good Friday service in Santa Barbara in the year 2000. A revised version appears in my book A Cry from the Cross, (CSS, 2008). I will be sharing the same word today at the Community Good Friday service in Troy, MI. These sermons form part of ongoing presentations of the Seven Last Words of Christ.
Pilate sat there in judgment of this man Jesus, surrounded by various accusers. He had tried to get out of it, but the needs of the moment required condemnation of the prisoner. So, he made his decision: send Jesus to the cross. He came to this decision after a night of debate and the decision was final; there would be no appeal.
It was strange to see this man, who only a few days earlier had been acclaimed by the crowds as a deliverer going to his death on a cross. Since executions were always public spectacles, the soldiers led the prisoners, Jesus of Nazareth and two other criminals, through the streets toward the place of execution, a place known to Luke simply as The Skull. Exhausted by the night's ordeal Jesus fell under the weight of the cross. Being in a hurry to finish the job, the soldiers forced a pilgrim from Cyrene, a man named Simon, to carry the cross the rest of the way up the hill.
Once they arrived at the execution site, the soldiers laid Jesus out on the cross and nailed his body to the posts and then they hoisted him up so that he could die a slow, humiliating, and painful death in the company of two criminals.. He hung there, a crown of thorns sitting uncomfortably on his head, the thorns digging into his forehead and the blood trickling down his face. His back bled from the flogging he had endured and the crush of his weight forced him to struggle to remain upright. There he hung, God's suffering servant, the one of whom Isaiah spoke, the one who poured himself out to death "and was numbered with the transgressors." (Is. 53:12). He took his place among us, and was counted by us as a sinner, and now he hung there bearing our suffering, our pain, our sins.
At the foot of the cross one could find a few followers, most of whom were the women, covering their eyes and weeping. They moaned out loud, "Oh, how could this happen?" But others jeered at him, soldiers and Jewish priests, former admirers and disappointed revolutionaries, adding further insult to his humiliation.
Then, struggling to get his breath, he utters his first word.
"Father Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing."
We hear these words with a sense of disbelief. What? Forgive them. How can you do this? How can someone forgive the ones who have participated in this deed? Where we recoil from such a thought, Jesus offers words of forgiveness.
But who are the recipients of this forgiveness? The recipients are many, beginning with the soldiers at his feet, the ones who had nailed him to the cross and who were now busy dispensing with his clothes, the same soldiers who periodically looked up and shouted insults at him. The recipients also included the Jewish and Roman leaders who conspired against him. And then there were the fickle crowds who at first acclaimed him as messiah and then called for the release of Barabbas instead when they had a chance to free Jesus. Finally, the recipients of this word of forgiveness also include us, we who gather at this service; we who by our actions crucify the Son of God.
As we stand here as recipients of Jesus' words of forgiveness, we may still find these words strange, because they are not consistent with the way we deal with life. Forgiveness requires repentance, an apology; yet here Jesus offers a blanket forgiveness to all. Though this may not be consistent with the way we usually act, it does seem to comport well with the teachings and actions of Jesus as witnessed to in the gospels. But maybe it is not the words of forgiveness that baffle us; perhaps it is the excuse that Jesus makes for his oppressors. It just seems too implausible, too easy.
Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.
Surely they knew what they were doing. But as theologian Karl Rahner responds:
Really they knew it all. But they did not want to know it!
Yes, we know what we are doing, but we don't want to face the reality of our thoughts and our actions. Yet Jesus offers us forgiveness anyway; yes, as Isaiah writes: he has "made intercession for the transgressors." There on the cross, Jesus acted as our high priest, interceding for us, the transgressors. Yes we are the transgressors, the ones who have nailed our Lord to the cross, and it is he who intercedes on our behalf, excusing us for our ignorance, an ignorance we have chosen for ourselves by our inability to grapple with the depth of our crime.
If it were me, would I offer these words. I don't think I could do it, yet our Lord has done it. We stand here as those who benefit from these words: "Father forgiven them, for they do not know what they are doing."
Good Friday, April 21, 2000
Community Good Friday Service
First Presbyterian Church
Santa Barbara, CA