Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
- Jesus, on the cross (Luke 23:34)
My grandfather always used to love telling a certain anecdote about Calvin Coolidge. He was a man of such few words that one time, President Coolidge went to hear a world-famous preacher preach. Upon returning from the sermon, his wife asked what it was about. He replied “sin.” Not satisfied with the answer, the wife asked, “Well, what did the preacher have to say about sin?” The response: “He’s against it.”
It was a running joke every time my grandfather came home from church — like many older members of our congregation, he tended to go to the shorter, more convenient Saturday evening service, and when he got home, my father would try and get a preview of what the Sunday sermon might be about. My grandfather’s answer: “Sin, and he’s against it.”
The joke is that all sermons are about sin. All the preachers are against it.
But as a child, I noticed there was something slightly off about this joke. At my church, the sermon often focused on topics besides the preacher’s, or even God’s, opposition to sin. Which is a good thing, because that’s not the focus of Christianity, either.
Trying to force people to become better is something we leave to the government and to the police. But even at their very best, when they are doing the most good they can do, they only do a superficial job. The police, at their best, can get people to not steal for fear of being arrested. Ideally, we want people to not steal because they know that stealing hurts people.
There are many people, in many traditions and faiths, whose religious beliefs can be summarized as “We must not do bad things, because otherwise God will be angry, and will punish us.” There are even some Christians who think like that.
But Christians should know better. Christians should know that the summary of the Gospel is not “punish the evildoer” or “God is a better, omniscient policeman” but rather “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him [ – whoever trusts in Him – ] shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
We have a God who loves us. We have a God who loves us so much that He talks about forgiveness while He is being murdered. This is a good message for me, because I have no trouble believing God exists. I do, however, regularly have trouble believing, as the Bible says, that God is love, that God loves me.
Now, I’d like to make clear that God is still against sin, that most preachers are still against sin – it’s just not the primary message God has for us. And this is where I’d like to move on to the second part of Jesus’s quote: “for they do not know what they are doing.”
Jesus was specifically speaking about the soldiers who, unaware that Jesus was the Son of God, were doing their jobs in executing Him. But more generally, He was talking about everyone involved in killing Him. And, even more generally, since Jesus specifically says that harm we do to each other is harm done to Him, I wonder if he wasn’t talking about all of us who harm each other, saying “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Now, when I started thinking about this, this shocked me, because it seemed like God was giving us an excuse. And I’m pretty sure God isn’t keen on excuses for hurting other people; Jesus said “if your eye causes you to sin, cut it out and throw it away,” showing that people who blame body parts for their behavior are putting the blame in the wrong place.
God doesn’t need to have an excuse to forgive us. God’s forgiveness doesn’t come from a place of “what they were doing wasn’t all that bad.” The horrible things that we, as human beings, each and every one of us do to each other actually are all that bad, as demonstrated by the fact that when a perfectly loving person comes into our midst, our reaction is to kill Him.
But I think it does say that, just as the soldiers didn’t know that the Person they were executing was the Son of God, we don’t fully process the consequences of our actions. We don’t fully see, and we forget, that the people we treat with disrespect are made in God’s image, that they are fully alive and conscious as we are. We don’t fully see, and we forget, what deep consequences our words can have.
And we need to do better. Not because God will be angry and unable to forgive us if we don’t, but because God does forgive us, and because other people matter. And, if we put our trust in God, he will forgive us, and transform us, not through fear, but through love.
I originally gave this as my portion of a series of meditations on the last “words” or statements of Jesus, when I was asked to do that at my church on Good Friday, 2017.