“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Luke 23: 32 – 34.
Back in January, I put together a “preaching plan” for this year. As I was putting this together, I discovered that today is an interesting day. Three different calendars all converge on this one day to make this a special day. Our secular calendar tells us that today is the first day of Daylight Savings Time—we all lost an hour of sleep so we could spring forward for an extra hour of daylight. Our educational calendar tells us that today is the first Sunday of Spring Break. And, the Christian calendar tells us that today is the first Sunday of Lent.
Lent is relatively new to me. I grew up in Baptist churches which did not follow the Christian calendar. When I was growing up, my churches thought the seasons of Advent and Lent were Catholic and not something we observed. We were more inclined to observe the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering.
But, I don’t think we need to avoid the seasons of the Christian calendar. After all, Christmas and Easter are the two most important Holy Days for Christians. Christmas is the day we set aside to recognize the birth of Jesus…or the time when God broke into human history and promised that God would always be with us. Easter is the day we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus…the single most important event in all of human history…the day when God conquered sin, death, evil and Hell…the day when the Kingdom of God / the Reign of God broke into our world.
If Christmas and Easter are our most important Holy Days, then it makes sense to me that we would want to make a bigger deal than have two dates set aside on the calendar. Perhaps we need to spend some time preparing ourselves for Christmas and Easter. Advent is when we prepare for Christmas. Lent is when we prepare for Easter.
According to the Four Gospels, Jesus spoke seven times from the cross. Over the next six weeks (seven including Easter Sunday), let’s take a closer look at what Jesus said from the cross and use these six or seven weeks to prepare for Easter.
Luke 23: 32 – 34…32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals--one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
There’s an interesting thing that happens as we read through the Gospels. We believe that Jesus’ earthly ministry lasted about three years. If the Gospel authors tried to write a detailed account of all of Jesus’ teaching, preaching, ministry and miracles, the Gospels would be much longer than they are. Instead, the Gospels only focus on a few key stories from Jesus’ three years of ministry and move very quickly through three years of teaching, preaching, ministry and miracles.
But all that changes when we reach the last week of Jesus’ life. All four Gospels move quickly through three years of ministry and then slow down to give us detailed descriptions of each day of Jesus’ last week…the week which began with the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem and ended with his Crucifixion and Resurrection.
With all these details about Jesus’ last week…I find it interesting that none of the Gospels goes into details about Crucifixion. They give us minute by minute details about Jesus’ trials before the Jewish Sanhedrin, Herod and Pilate. We even know the name and the hometown of the man enlisted to carry Jesus’ cross (Simon of Cyrene)! But, all we know about the Crucifixion is what we read in Luke 23: 33, “…they crucified him…”
There are probably a couple of reasons why the Gospels spare us the details of the crucifixion. On one hand, the details of a crucifixion were gruesome. On the other hand, most people in the First Century Roman world knew what a crucifixion looked like. Crucifixion was more than just the execution of a criminal. It was a public spectacle. The Romans knew that public humiliation and public death did a good job of keeping the peace. Watching a man carry his own cross through town and watching him die a humiliating and painful death had a way of keeping the crime rates low.
I do not intend to reiterate the gruesome details of a Roman crucifixion. Let me simply say that the condemned person was beaten, mocked, stripped naked and nailed to a wooden cross. The pain experienced during crucifixion was worse than anything that human words could ever describe. In fact, the Romans invented a new word to describe the pain of the cross. It was not Agony. It was not Brutal. It was not Severe. It was Excruciating. This word Excruciating comes from two Latin words: ex (Out of) and crux (Cross) which mean “Out of the Cross.” Therefore, excruciating pain is “pain from the cross.”
More than likely, the person being crucified would have been nailed to the cross by the wrists and the feet. Traditional art depicts Jesus as having nail prints in the palms of his hands. (It is possible that Jesus had nails through the palms of his hands and ropes tying his wrists to the cross to prevent the nail holes from tearing.) However, archaeology has revealed that the most common method was to put the nails in the person’s wrist in order to hold up to the person’s weight.
Have you ever bumped your “Funny Bone” and rolled around on the floor because it hurt so badly? The nerve that we call the funny bone runs through the wrist and would have been either smashed or severed by the seven inch spikes that were hammered into Jesus’ flesh.
This is only part of the pain that Jesus experienced on the cross. Yes, Jesus experienced excruciating physical pain. However, Jesus also experienced other pain that we might classify as emotional pain. Jesus was an innocent man. I don’t mean that he was merely innocent of the crimes he was accused of committing. Jesus was actually innocent in every sense of the word innocent. Jesus had never committed any sin. Although Jesus had been tempted in every way as you and I are tempted today, Jesus had resisted temptation and remained pure. But Jesus was not crucified for his sins. He was crucified for your sins and my sins. Can you imagine the emotional weight and strain of having the guilt of the entire world placed on your shoulders? Many of us feel weighted down with our own guilt and sin. But Jesus felt the emotional weight of all guilt and sin.
On top of this emotional weight of guilt and sin, Jesus also felt abandoned by all his friends in his moment of need. According to the Gospels, all of Jesus’ disciples ran away when Jesus was arrested.
Just a week before the crucifixion, Jesus had been surrounded by twelve disciples, a larger group of followers, a group of women and a crowd chanting “Hosanna to the King.” Then just a day before the crucifixion, Jesus had made a bold prophesy—They will strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter. Jesus knew that all his disciples would run away when faced with danger. Of course, Peter did not believe this was possible. Peter jumped to his feet and announced in front of God and everybody, “Though everyone else might fall away, I will never fall away.” But that wasn’t exactly what happened. Peter did run away—just like Jesus told him he would. Then Peter even denied Jesus in front of others.
It probably shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus’ first words from the cross were addressed to God. Jesus didn’t speak to Peter, the disciples or the crowd of people, because they weren’t there. Everyone had left Jesus, and there was only one person there to hear his cries. With no one else there to hear him, Jesus prayed.
We aren’t surprised that Jesus prayed on the cross, because that’s what we often do when we are facing the most difficult circumstances we have ever faced. When we are going through physical pain (illness and surgeries), we pray. When we face emotional grief (when friends or family members die or even abandon us), we pray.
However, our prayers sound a little different from Jesus’ prayer. Our prayers tend to focus on our own needs. We pray, “Help me, Lord;” “Heal me, Lord;” “Help me make it through the night, Lord.” And that is NOT what Jesus prayed. Before Jesus gave any thought to his own predicament or his own needs, Jesus prayed for others.
Jesus specifically prayed for forgiveness. The Greek word we translate “forgive” actually means “to release.” Forgiveness is an act of God to release us from our sins and the punishment our sins deserve.
One of my favorite ways to describe the forgiveness God offers us is to use a human illustration about forgiveness. I got this illustration from a book I read in a college theology course (Fisher Humphreys, Thinking about God: An Introduction to Christian Theology, [New Orleans: Insight Press, 1974]).
Imagine that you are in business with someone who has been your life-long friend. After a long and successful career, you discover that your friend and business partner has been stealing money from you. When you find out all the details, you discover that your friend and business partner has stolen your entire life savings. There are three ways you can respond.
First, you can simply ignore the theft. You can continue to be friends and business partners. This is what most people think of when they think of forgiveness. However, forgetting is not the same thing as forgiveness. In fact, forgetting is not a good option. By ignoring the problem, you are not helping your friend and business partner—he will continue to steal, because he has gotten away with it. By ignoring the problem, you are also an accomplice to the crime. You knew about it and did nothing.
Second, you can punish the criminal. If you punish the criminal, you alleviate your own guilt, you help the criminal to “learn his lesson” and hopefully correct his ways. You even have the satisfaction of “doing the right thing” and seeking justice. But, justice does not fix the relationship. In fact, justice is probably going to destroy the relationship.
The third way is the way of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not the same thing as forgetting or ignoring the crime. Forgiveness is not the same thing as justice. Forgiveness is suffering the consequences of someone else’s actions and working to restore the relationship.
This is what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus did not ignore our sins. Jesus did not suffer the consequences of his own sins. Jesus suffered because of our sins. Jesus did not give us what we deserve. Jesus took the punishment and consequences that we deserved so that we could be reconciled to God.
Forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness is painful. Forgiveness is impossible without suffering.
Of course this raises a question about the subject of Jesus’ prayer. Who did Jesus have in mind when he prayed, “Father, forgive THEM?” Who is “them?”
I think the simplest answer is to look at the people gathered at the foot of the cross. As I have already mentioned, the disciples and the crowds were not at the cross. Jesus was surrounded by Roman soldiers. These soldiers were professional executioners who were only following the orders handed down to them by a higher authority. The higher authority was nothing less than the Roman government—the most powerful political force in the ancient world.
Yet, the Roman government did not act alone. In fact, the crucifixion of Jesus was resulted from the collusion of two powerful entities. The Roman political leaders and the Jewish religious leaders put aside all their differences in order to join forces and get rid of Jesus of Nazareth.
This leads me to believe Jesus was praying for more than just the soldiers who were faithfully carrying out their orders. I think Jesus was also praying for those who gave the orders in the first place. Jesus was praying for his enemies.
Jesus was practicing what he had preached in the Sermon on the Mount.
Matthew 5: 43 – 44… 43 "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
I guess Jesus didn’t mean that to be a metaphor. He literally meant for us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. We are supposed to want the best for the people who most want to hurt us!
Don’t miss this…Jesus was not only praying for the Roman soldiers, the Roman government authorities and the Jewish religious leaders…Jesus was also praying for you and me when he prayed for his enemies. The Roman government and the Jewish religion were not the only ones who put Jesus on the cross. Our sin put Jesus on the cross. We are Jesus’ enemies. We are responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion and death.
Forgiveness is the first word Jesus spoke from the cross. And, forgiveness is the first word of relationship!
Forgiveness is the only way to have relationship with God. And, the cross is the only way forgiveness is possible. Forgiveness is not the same thing as ignoring our sin. Forgiveness is certainly not the same thing as justice—giving us what we deserve. Forgiveness is when God accepted the suffering and consequences of our sins on himself, because God loves us and wants to establish a relationship with us.
Forgiveness and Love and the Cross cannot be separated…
God loves you so much, it hurts. God’s love is an Arduous Love…a Tortuous Love…an Excruciating Love…(a love from the cross).