“When they came to the place called The Skull, they crucified [Jesus] there, along with the criminals, one on His right and the other on His left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:33-34).
The time has come. The dread hour has arrived. They nail Jesus to a cross.
They do so along with a couple of real bad guys. One of those bad guys repented there and turned to Jesus. We will see him as our brother in our Lord’s kingdom.
In the last couple of weeks, we have seen how we got here. We saw Jesus on trial before the chief priests and elders of His own people. Despite the wonderful things He had done in their sight, they seek witnesses to accuse Him falsely of blasphemy. But what more could He have done to demonstrate to them who He is? Nothing.
Nevertheless, they think they have found a way under the law with a pretext of lawfulness to get rid of Him. They think they are doing it right, though they are using the law to serve their own ends. They are getting it quite wrong. They literally do not know what they are doing.
We saw Jesus before Pilate, the Roman authority, the gentile power. Pilate knew Jesus was innocent. Yet, for political expediency He delivers Jesus to be crucified. He is indifferent to the truth. If He had not been indifferent, if Jesus’s life had been more to him than just a way out of a jam (Mat. 27:24), then He would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But He delivered the Lord of glory to be crucified. He also literally did not know what He was doing.
And what about the crowds. The crowds were willing accomplices once the great revolution against the Roman oppressors had not been brought about by Jesus. What kind of a Messiah did they want? It seems they wanted one that would bring glory in political and economic terms. It seems they saw these as their number 1 problems in life.
Did they regard sin; peace with God and with one another; and eternal life as the number 1 issues? Maybe they thought: “Aw, people aren’t that bad are they, at least not most people, right? Especially not our people. Eternal life? Who cares. What about now?”
Did Jesus become useless to them? Did He disappoint their expectations? Is that why they turned on Him?
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, He spoke a lament over it, because it did not know the day of its visitation (Luke 19:41-44). This visitation was the one promised that the Lord would suddenly come to His temple (Malachi 3:1). But now they turn their back on their Lord. They do not stand up for Him in front of the Governor. They ask for His crucifixion. They also literally do not know what they are doing.
And so we see Jesus nailed to a cross, a fate He did not deserve. He is there because of the malice and arrogance of the rulers of the people. He is there because of indifference to the truth. He is there because He did not give the people what they wanted, though He came to meet a much deeper need freely; a need to which they were indifferent.
And we watch it. If we had been in the moment then, what would we have been thinking? Would we think it only right that Jesus should give malice in return for malice, hate for hate, indifference for indifference? This would be natural to us.
But not Jesus. What does Jesus say, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Forgive. Be merciful because of their ignorance.
Ignorance of the law in our American judicial system is no excuse for breaking the law; it is no defense. Yet, they literally do not know what they are doing when they crucify Jesus. However, He asks for the Father’s mercy for them. He could have thrown the book at them. He asks for mercy.
There is a deep irony in what Jesus prays. The chief priests and Sanhedrin condemned Jesus for blasphemy for claiming to be God’s Son, quite literally. They were wrong about that. Jesus really is God’s Son, quite literally.
If He really had not been God’s Son, however, He would have been spewing curses and threats upon those crucifying Him. In crucifying Him, therefore, they would have proven themselves right by such a response. Yet, Jesus is asking the Father for their forgiveness, as they crucify Him. He proves, therefore, that He is God’s Son because He asks the Father to forgive them. Their crucifixion of Jesus proves quite literally that the charge of blasphemy, for which they crucify Him, was wrong. Yet, they crucify Him anyway.
God knows what He is doing. The Son knows why He is there. He loves these poor misguided people, who are misguided by fear, and malice, and jealously, and self-righteousness, and hatred, and indifference to what is right. He loves them as they nail Him to the cross. He asks for their forgiveness as they cruelly give Him over to death. As they kill Him, He opens the way for their redemption and peace. He makes their repentance possible, once they are brought to realize, “Oh no, what have we done.”
He loves them to the end.
He loves us to the end.
Would we have been any better than they? In one respect, it is probably not a worthwhile question. We are not people of that century and of the Jewish and Roman cultures of that time. We were not there, so it would only be speculation to ask what we would have done.
However, we share our humanity with them. Thus, we share in their deeply rooted corruption. We too can get caught up in going along with the crowd. We also have our ways of being indifferent to the truth. And at those times, we may think we have good reasons. We share with them all of the misguided motivations that they had. And in those misguided motivations, we may even convince ourselves that we have really good reasons for them. At those times, we really do not know what we are doing, even though we think we do.
Thus, we know that Jesus, the Son, went to that cross also for us, because of us.
Therefore, He loves us to the end; He loves you to the end. Therefore, He prays for us, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And He has opened for us too the way of peace. He confirmed this when He rose from the death all sin imposed on Him. Praise be to God.
To what then do we cling? In what do we hope? Our own obedience? Nope. Rather, that Christ Jesus Himself, our God and Lord, our brother, crucified and risen, is our peace. All of our sin is taken up by Him and put to death in His death. It is all swallowed up in His immense love for us. And in this love and in this death He speaks the words by which we live, “Father forgive them, for my sake.” And the Father hears His Son, and claims us as His own.