Father, Forgive Them
A Sermon on Luke 23:34
How could the soldiers pound spikes through the human hand and consider it all in a day’s work? But that’s just what it was to them: a day’s work. And why not have a little fun while they were at it. They played dice, and the prizes were Jesus’ clothes. They had a good time at his expense: “Since you’re the king of the Jews,” they laughed, “save yourself.”
How can people do such things to each other? Recently our family watched a program about the allied agents who worked during World War II to track down German physicists and rocket scientists like Werner von Braun, and their work. Twenty years later Von Braun was a big shot in the American space program, and newscasters were interviewing him about the Apollo moon launches. But during the war, the physical work of the weapons programs Von Braun and his cohorts developed was done by slave labor on starvation rations from a nearby concentration camp. How could the scientists not know? And if they did know, how could they not care?
How can unspeakable acts get to be commonplace, so “all in a day’s work?” How can human life be treated with such contempt? This kind of behavior isn’t surprising when the people involved hate each other. But how can people who claim to love God and love one another in marriages, families, churches and communities disrespect, demean and wound each other so grievously?
Some of the leaders of God’s people were also enjoying the proceedings. They scoffed, “He saved others; let’s see him save himself if he really is the Messiah, the chosen of God.” Even one of the criminals crucified next to Jesus got into the act: “So you’re the Messiah, eh? Prove it by saving yourself, and us, too, while you’re at it!” And he kept on taking digs at Jesus.
Saving himself was just what Jesus could not do and still accomplish his mission. Yet it would be very understandable if his own pain was all he could see and all he could think and all he could feel. How he had shuddered in the garden at the very thought of it!
Unlike the defiant criminal, Jesus uttered no protest. But neither did he offer these cheap words that so often pass for forgiveness: “It’s okay. It’s no big deal.” Or even, “I brought it on myself.” Matthew and Mark make it clear that Jesus did cry out in pain. But what’s the first thing out of Jesus’ mouth in Luke?
The first word out of Jesus’ mouth in Luke is “Father,” the One he counts on for everything. The first sentence out of Jesus’ mouth is prayer. The first concern out of Jesus’ mouth is for others. “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing!”
Who is this “them” he’s referring to? Right there at his feet were the soldiers, who certainly thought they knew what they were doing: doing their job. Ridding the world of vermin. Father, forgive them.
Nearby also were religious leaders, who certainly thought they knew what they were doing: protecting God’s interests and the national interests, and incidentally their own. Father, forgive them.
And then there were the criminals who had preyed on others who were weaker than they in some way, one a mocker, and the other seeing a chance of some kind of future with Jesus. Father, forgive them.
And only blocks away were Pilate and Herod, who didn’t pretend to be doing anything other than protecting their own interests. Father, forgive them.
And somewhere out there was Peter, who used to be sure he knew what he was doing, but not anymore. Not since he hadn’t been able to keep his pledge to follow Jesus even to death. Father, forgive him. And Judas the schemer. Where was he? Luke leaves that question unanswered until the Book of Acts. Father, forgive him. Somewhere out there were the rest of the disciples who only hours before had been arguing in the upper room about which of them was the greatest. Father, forgive them. And what about the helpless onlookers who didn’t know what to do, or didn’t want to do anything—just gawk? Father, forgive them.
Before Jesus placed himself in God’s hands one last time, he placed everyone else in God’s hands. On the cross Jesus brought the world to the God who speaks the word that can heal the unspeakable; to the God with the power to forgive the unforgivable; to the God who refuses to let sin and death have the final word.
“Father, forgive them.” No, that does not mean that this sin or any other is acceptable. No, that does not mean Jesus’ wounds or any other wounds are trivial. No, that does not mean the hurt will, must, or even can be forgotten. Even after the resurrection Jesus still bore the marks of the wounds. What it does mean is that there is forgiveness in the heart of God. God creates it. God holds the power of it. God’s forgiveness is the road to healing. God’s forgiveness is the road to life. “Father, forgive them” is not a surrender to evil. It is a surrender to God.
After the resurrection, Jesus called his followers to proclaim forgiveness in his name. And that they did in word and action. When an enraged mob dragged Deacon Stephen out and stoned him, he echoed the words of Christ: Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Lord Jesus, do not hold this sin against them. The “them” that day included Saul, the man who would become Paul. The “them” included Saul, who watched with approval and kept the rock-throwers’ coats for them. Before God turned him around, he was a big-time persecutor of the church, responsible for people’s deaths. And then he marveled at God’s mercy to release him from this sin and call him to a new life.
In her book Forgiveness, the Passionate Journey (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2001), Flora Slosson Wuellner talks about how it is possible to pray for people who have done great wrong, and for those who have wronged us deeply. The thing to do is deliver these people into God’s hands. The thing to do is pray the prayer of Jesus, “Father, forgive them.” It’s not necessary to force ourselves to feel a peace and a resolution when there is none. These may or may not come until much later. It’s not necessary to try to muster up forgiveness from somewhere within ourselves. It is enough to offer the person to God, to the One who creates forgiveness, and the One who holds the power of it, and the One will make Easter happen. And we must not kick ourselves when we find ourselves needing to pray that prayer again and again.
“Father, forgive them.” From the cross our Lord sees through his own pain the needy people at his feet, lost in sin, and to the edges of the crowd and all the way down through the centuries. He sees:
• The prideful, who insist on going it alone, who insist on relying on their own strength and their own smarts. Father, forgive them.
• The self-righteous, so sure that “my way is God’s way, and whatever I have to do to get my way is okay. The ends justify the means.” Father, forgive them.
• The fearful, whose goal is to protect themselves, who offer a whisper when God calls them to speak out. Father, forgive them.
• The self-indulgent, who worship mammon, who want more and more and more of what the world offers. Father, forgive them.
• Those who enjoy feeling one-up on others, those who play the blame game, and those who make others into scapegoats. Father, forgive them.
• The apathetic. Those who don’t care. Those who can’t care. Father, forgive them.
Jesus sees us all through his pain and his tears. He sees us all lost in sin, all suffering through our own pain and tears.
Let all who have been wounded gather at the cross. Let all who have wounded others gather at the cross. And let us pray: Father, forgive us.