Father, Forgive Them

In Luke's Gospel, Jesus asks no questions of God at the end. Far from believing himself forsaken by God, he believes God is close enough to answer a prayer. The first thing he asks, once his hands have been hammered down and he has been lifted high above the crowd, is "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."

His concern is not for himself, at that point, but for those who are killing him. They do not know what they are doing, he explains to God, and people who don't know what they are doing should not be held accountable. Jesus wants God to know that he has no case against them. Jesus wants all charges dropped, only who are "they" exactly?

He can see them all from up there—the low ranking Roman soldiers who were assigned the dirty work, as well as the officer who gave them their orders. They are getting the bad taste out of their mouths by gambling for his clothing. Shopping has always been a reliable distraction. One of them has discovered that his feet are only a little smaller than Jesus' feet. He really wants the sandals. Another has his eye on the tunic, which still smells like the man hanging above them on the cross.

Luke says that some of the leaders of the people were also in the crowd, so Jesus can see them too—people so caught between their love of God and their fear of Rome that they don't know what to do, especially with one of their own who has long seemed bent on self-destruction. At least part of their job, these leaders of the people, is to keep Jews off Roman crosses, but this particular Jew has stirred up so many people that he has made himself impossible to defend. Better him than all of his followers. Better to let Rome make an example of the one than of the many.

Who Jesus cannot see from his high perch are any of his friends. They are way out on the edges of the crowd, Luke says—all of his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee. If they stood any closer, they would be at grave risk. One word out of their mouths and anyone who heard them would know they are Galileans—the same way the servant girl identified Peter at the high priest's house the night before. So they do not stand close. They stand far away, keeping a safe distance between themselves and their teacher—who is, after all, beyond help.

"Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." With so many choices, whom does Jesus mean? Judas, the chief priests and scribes, Pilate, Herod, the Roman soldiers, the disciples? Furthermore, if this sacrifice is truly God's will, then why does anyone need forgiving at all? They are simply playing their assigned parts, so that God's will may be done.

Tragically, the Christian church has not spent much time pondering those questions. From the very beginning, the answer has been easy: Jesus was talking about the Jews—the Jews who betrayed him, the Jews who condemned him, the Jews who turned him over to he Romans to be killed. These are the people who are in deep need of God's forgiveness, or so the legend goes.

Because of that legend, there is a Jewish history of Good Friday as well as a Christian one. According to Jewish people I know, today has long been one of the most frightening days of the year. In parts of eastern Europe during the last century, Jews knew better than to leave their homes on Good Friday, when Christians stoked up by the passion narrative they had just heard in church poured out into the streets to do as much damage as possible in the Jewish part of town.If you read Jewish history after Charlemagne, the litany of violence is simply astounding:

1096 The First Crusade is launched, with a slaughter of Jews in Rhineland
1190 Jews are massacred in England
1233 The Inquisition offers Jews a choice: convert to Christianity or die
1290 Jews are expelled from England
1348 Jews are burned in Switzerland for "causing" the Black Death
1394 Jews are expelled from France
1492 Jews are expelled from Spain
1648 The institution of the Jewish ghetto begins in Venice
1881 Pogroms against Jews are launched in Russia
1938 Krystallnacht. By morning, synagogues are burning all over Nazi Germany.
1939-1945 Six million Jews die in Europe, including 1 and 1/2 million children

Any way you do the arithmetic, Jesus' death has been avenged—millions of times over—by Christians who have somehow twisted his gospel of loving your enemies and doing good to those who hate you into a two thousand year long nightmare of racism and revenge. The deep irony is that many of these Jews—when they have been thrown out of town, locked up in ghettos, reviled, beaten up, raped, and left for dead—have turned to the Bible seeking some meaning for their suffering. The psalm with as many Jewish fingerprints on it as any is Psalm 22, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

We have crucified him over and over and over again—or stood way out on the edges of the crowd while someone else did—keeping a safe distance between ourselves and the one on the cross—who is, after all, beyond help.

"Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." Whom was Jesus talking about? Us. He was talking about us. He even gave us the benefit of the doubt, by assuming that we have no idea how much harm we do—by our inaction as well as by our action, by our collusion as well as by our outright contempt for those whom we declare "the enemies of Christ." How often, in our attempts to defend him, have we ended up killing him instead?

If God answered his prayer from the cross, which we should fervently hope God did—if we have indeed been forgiven, then that is the end of it—the end of all the blaming, all the scape-goating, all the getting-even, all the revenge. He died to put an end to all of that. He volunteered to be the last victim, so that his followers would never make victims out of anyone else again. He even gave us a prayer to pray if we should ever find our own hands hammered down: "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."


Copyright ©2000 Barbara Brown Taylor

This homily was delivered at the Lenten Noonday Preaching Series at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee, on April 21, 2000. An earlier version of this sermon appeared in Home By Another Way (Cowley 1999).