READ : Luke 23:30-34
One of the hardest things in life to do is to forgive those who have hurt us. But Jesus’ example shows us that forgiveness too is part of what it means to live the best kind of life.
The dilemma of the human condition is the gap between what we know we ought to do and what we really want to do. Take, for example, the issue of forgiveness. Imagine someone has been treating you badly for a long time, has hurt you deeply and then, unexpectedly, you find it in your power to hurt them back. What would you do? Actually, that’s the plot line of Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. The main character Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, has been treated shamefully all his life – literally spat upon – by the so-called “Christian” businessmen of Venice. When one of these, a man called Antonio, asks him for a loan, Shylock demands as collateral a pound of Antonio’s flesh should he fail to repay the money on time. The loan comes due, Antonio cannot pay, and Shylock insists on extracting his penalty:
The pound of flesh, which I demand of him,
Is dearly bought; ‘tis mine and I will have it…
I stand for judgment…
Surely we can understand how Shylock feels; this is his one chance to get back at his enemies for all those years of pain and suffering. To get even! It’s what any of us would like to do in his place.
THE DUTY OF FORGIVENESS
But I think we also know this is not the way we ought to feel. Jesus Christ spoke powerfully and at length about the duty of his followers to forgive those who had done wrong to them. He taught his disciples to pray these words: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). In the slightly different form of that Lord’s Prayer in Luke’s Gospel, the petition is: “Forgive us our sins [or trespasses], for we also forgive everyone who sins against us” (Luke 11:4).
Jesus not only teaches us to ask for forgiveness; he also teaches us to be willing to offer it to others. In fact, Jesus connects our receiving forgiveness for the wrong things that we have done with our willingness and readiness to extend forgiveness to those who have wronged us. This is the only request in the Lord’s Prayer which has a condition attached to it. It’s easy to ask for forgiveness; it is hard, very hard, to give it. Yet give it we must. Jesus knew that you can never truly experience the mercy of God for yourself unless you are also willing to be merciful toward others. An unforgiving heart can never itself be forgiven. Grace is a gift which has to be given in order to be received; if we ask God to forgive our sins, we must also offer forgiveness to those who have sinned against us. You can no more get forgiveness without giving it than you can breathe in without breathing out! So to recognize our own need to be forgiven is at the same time to recognize our equally great need to be forgiving.
And to go on forgiving. One day Jesus’ disciple Peter came to him with a question: How many times should I forgive someone who does something wrong to me? Like most of us, Peter was interested in establishing the minimum standards. His question assumes that we have a right to resent an injury and that, while we may by a great effort surrender this right and forgive someone, finally we’ll reach a limit where we can do what we’ve really wanted to do all along, which is to remain offended. In other words, you may have to forgive someone once or even twice, but repeat offenses call for pay-back.
But Christ’s response put an end to such thinking. What he said to Peter was that there is no limit to forgiving. It’s not like a basketball game where you count up the number of fouls and then disqualify somebody. No, Jesus said, we must forgive and go on forgiving without keeping score, without trying to count. There never comes a point when we are allowed to stop forgiving and revert back to hating and carrying a grudge.
“FATHER, FORGIVE THEM”
Maybe you are thinking, “That’s easy for Jesus to say. He didn’t have to forgive something as bad as what has happened to me.” But that’s where you’re wrong! He did have to do exactly that. Remember the story of what happened to him at the very end of his life?
Jesus was arrested on a false charge by the authorities in Jerusalem. He was examined in an illegal secret assembly, which could only convict him of wrong-doing by the perjured testimony of false witnesses. He was brought before the Roman governor of Judea, who publicly declared that Jesus was innocent of any crime, but condemned him to death anyway in order to appease Jesus’ powerful and influential enemies. Pilate the governor handed Jesus over to his soldiers, who then mocked and beat him, stripped him of his clothes, and forced him to carry his own cross to Golgotha, the place of execution. And then they put him to death.
The horrible act itself is recorded in the New Testament with remarkable restraint. In fact, the actual details of crucifixion are not even described. This is what Luke, the writer of the third Gospel, said about it:
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 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.
Luke 23:32-33, NIV
The unspeakable physical and emotional torture of the Lord Jesus at Golgotha is neither described in detail nor dwelt upon in the Bible.
But Luke does include one other significant detail. At the moment Jesus was being crucified, even as the soldiers were brutally nailing his hands and feet to the wooden cross with long spikes and then raising his body to hang vertically for agonizing hours, Luke records the words that Jesus spoke. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (v. 34).
“Father, forgive them . . . .” It’s a prayer, of course. The first word that Jesus spoke from the cross was addressed to God. He was calling on his Father in heaven. That’s not hard to understand. Prayer is the first thing a wise person will think of when faced with death. Moreover, Jesus’ prayer is for forgiveness, which is also not unusual in those circumstances. If I were facing death, I think I would pray for forgiveness too – for myself. I’m not one of those people who would make jokes in the face of death. Nor would I be tempted to curse my fate or hurl angry accusations around. I would be too busy confessing my sins and my faults and asking God to show mercy upon me. If I knew my death was imminent, I wouldn’t waste time on anything else but getting ready to face the holy and righteous Lord of heaven and earth.
But there is something very unusual in this prayer of Jesus. What is startling about Jesus’ prayer is that it’s not about him at all. That’s odd, isn’t it? Jesus doesn’t seem to be worried about his own sins; in fact, he doesn’t have any sins to worry about. He isn’t asking God to be gracious to him and forgive him because he’s never done anything for which he needs to be forgiven. No, the mercy for which he prays is for his killers, not for Jesus himself. It was sin that brought Jesus Christ to the cross, make no mistake about that. But not his own sin. He went there because of the sins of others. He was willing to die in order that the sins of everyone who trusts in him could be forgiven. And even as he was dying, Jesus asked God to forgive the very people who were in the act of murdering him.
To be sure, there was much to forgive. Think of the torture those soldiers were inflicting upon him. As I mentioned, the Gospels are reticent when it comes to describing the physical sufferings of Christ on the cross (in contrast to later generations of Christian writers). But although we’re not invited by the evangelists to dwell upon the physical horrors of crucifixion, we may be sure these were very real. Crucifixion was an especially gruesome and abhorrent way to die. It combined maximum pain with maximum shame and prolonged both of those to intolerable lengths.
But Jesus had more to forgive even than the physical torture, because in his case injustice and ingratitude were added to the cruelty of his execution. He hung on the cross an innocent man. He was betrayed by a close comrade, deserted by his best friends, caught up in the machinations of a jealous hierarchy who hated him for his sheer goodness. He was mocked and spat upon by the very crowds of people he had taught and fed and healed. He was tortured by the same authorities who were sworn to uphold the law and execute justice, and finally he was condemned by a crooked judge who admitted he was innocent even while passing sentence upon him. And in the face of all this, Jesus prayed that all might be forgiven.
As you think about the cross of Jesus Christ, ask yourself this: Is there anything anyone has done to me that matches this? And if Jesus both forgives his enemies himself and asks God for their forgiveness, what should I do about my enemies? We tend to believe there is something weak and contemptible about forgiving those who do us wrong, but that is not so. Forgiveness is one of the strongest, most beautiful of all human actions. It’s what it really means to be human.
“FOR THEY DO NOT KNOW . . .”
There is one more thing to say about Jesus’ prayer. He added a comment to it, a reason for God to show mercy to his killers. “Father,” he prayed, “forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (v. 34). Their sin was due to ignorance, at least in part. That was certainly true of the immediate subjects of Jesus’ prayer, the Roman soldiers performing the actual crucifixion. Just like soldiers everywhere, they were only carrying out their orders. Soldiers aren’t supposed to question what they are told to do; they’re just supposed to obey. On this particular day, that blind obedience involved them in the crime of the universe: the execution of the Lord of life. But, of course, they didn’t know that. To them, Jesus was just another Jewish troublemaker, and his crucifixion was all in a day’s work.
But ignorance is really no excuse. It is blameworthy. Ignorance is not the same as innocence. Just because people may not realize the enormity of the wrong they are doing does not mean they deserve to be forgiven for it. In fact, no one ever really deserves to be forgiven. That’s not how it works. Forgiveness is a grace, it is mercy, it is a free gift to those who have neither deserved it nor earned it.
That’s just how God forgives us, whether we know what we have done to him or remain blindly ignorant. His love is so great that he forgives even before we realize what he is offering to us. The Bible says that Christ died for us “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8). To receive this gracious gift of forgiveness all we have to do is turn to God in repentance and faith.
And then offer that same gift of forgiveness to others.