April 6, 2020
This begins our Holy Week series of reflections upon the words of Christ on the Cross.
Seven Last Words of Christ – “Forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” [Luke 23:34]
When Jesus hangs on the Cross, unjustly accused, willfully thrown away, and brutally executed, what exactly is he saying when he intercedes, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing”? About whom is he saying it and what is it they do not know they are doing?
The priests, scribes, and pharisees knew that they were turning over a man under false allegations, for they paid people to say things against Jesus. Further, in John’s Gospel we are told that Caiaphas helped people see that it was better to have Jesus executed rather than run the risk of his popularity leading to a potential uprising by the common folk, which would have provoked a terrible response by the Romans. Jesus was in every way in the minds of the religious leadership a scapegoat. (Interestingly, he ended up being right about the Roman response, when the Temple, “our place,” as Caiaphas calls it, is destroyed in 70 A.D. in response to a Jewish revolt). They knew what they were doing.
Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent of any charge that was deserving of Roman capital punishment. He went to great lengths to see Jesus released. Upon succumbing to the demands of the protestors, to mitigate the seeming outrage of the mob of Jewish people and lessen the possibility of some kind of revolt, he “washes his hands” of Jesus’ blood. He knew that the Jewish people’s not to distant history indicated that under the right circumstances an uprising was entirely possible. Pilate did not want to deal with that, so he gave a man, of whose innocence he was convinced, over to the most brutal execution imaginable. But he also accomplished mocking the Jewish leadership and people by placing a sign over Jesus which said, “The King of the Jews.” Giving into the demands of the crowds that an innocent be tortured and murdered just to keep the peace, he still wanted to remind them that they were under the foot of Roman power. He knew what he was doing.
The jeering crowds who gathered there knew that the man they were mocking was not deserving of this – the most awful fate and dispatching punishment that the Romans could apply. There was no real crime against the Roman Empire to which they might point and say, “he deserves this.” Besides, the citizens of Jerusalem of the day – with the possible exception of the Saducees (who represented only a small elite segment) – had a great resentment against the Romans for subjugating them. Given over to mob frenzy and losing all sense of perspective, they were going along with the irrationality of the moment. These folks knew what they were doing.
His disciples stood at a distance, grief-stricken and helpless, all the while knowing they had believed he was the Messiah of Israel. Understandably fearful, they nonetheless did nothing to stand with him or even to be close to him while he died, so he would not feel abandoned. While no one can really cast a non-hypocritical judgment on them, we know that they had to be aware that their personal fears were controlling them. They knew what they were doing.
There is, however, a greater sense in which they did not “know what they were doing.” None of them could have known that they were absolutely rejecting the gift of God’s Son and God’s Kingdom (the religious elite), belittling the majesty of the Lord of Creation (Pilate), mocking their one and only hope (the crowds), and giving up on God’s Son and their Messiah (his disciples). In I Corinthians 2:8, St. Paul declares that the wisdom of God was unknown to the “rulers of this age,” who otherwise would not have “crucified the Lord of glory” had they know of God’s wisdom and recognized who Christ was really. While I am not able to unpack who these “rulers of this age” represent in Paul’s theology, it is clear that for the great apostle there was a mystery which could not be known in the crucifixion of Jesus.
That mystery was and is simply this: God’s redeeming presence is being rejected and God’s Kingdom is being “refused” and God’s gift is being, therefore, abandoned and presumed worthless. Here is the lacking insight for all the varying individuals in the account of Jesus’ crucifixion. Yet, that does not make them guiltless, otherwise Jesus would not have discerned in his agony their need for forgiveness. He would not have, therefore, interceded for them. They are guilty before God of something, even in their ignorance.
No doubt, the thing for which each and all bear guilt is acting out of their own self-interest or self-referential understanding. Whether the Jewish leaders, Pilate, the frenzied crowd, or fearful disciples – everyone is blinded to the possibility of realizing exactly who is being killed, what God has offered them, and how they ought to be responding. Instead of acknowledging Christ as the Son of God and opening their lives to God’s Kingdom and relinquishing their own limited understanding, they participate – actively or passively in the “crucifixion of the Lord of glory.” They are rejecting God’s presence and purposes in a way that is consistent with the whole of the story of humanity in the Old Testament. From the Garden of Eden, the time of the Flood, to the Tower of Babel – and all the way through the history of Israel in their covenant with YHWH – the account if the same. Living in the moment, living for the now, living out of ourselves and for ourselves we humans miss, ignore, and reject God’s presence.
Here we see the great power of the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God enacts the most wondrous of spiritual ironies. He takes the ultimate moment of human rejection of Himself – the crucifixion of the Incarnate Son of God – and he turns it into the act whereby he reconciles us to Himself. The Father is not killing His Son for our sins, rather we kill the Son out of our self-preferring blindness and deafness. Through and in the Son, God takes into His own being our rejection of Himself, takes upon Himself our judgment against God’s anointed One, takes into His very love all of human hate, disdain, and fear. In doing so, God performs a great reversal, making our sinful rejection of God into the one and only moment of God’s grace-filled reconciliation of humanity to Himself.
So, Jesus prays . . . “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” But, God knew what He was doing.
During this Holy Week, as we ponder Christ’s self-giving love, I encourage you to pray – in the light of the Resurrection:
“Father, forgive me when I have lived out of my own self-reference, by my own surrender to circumstances, by my own preference for how I want things to be. Enable me to live only and always in response to Your offer of Your presence and Your purposes for my life. Let me see Jesus completely for who He is. Let me receive Jesus completely in all He brings. Let me follow Jesus all the way to You, both now and forever. Amen”