“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
At first blush, it appears that Jesus is excusing his executioners—as in, “They are really not at fault because they don’t understand what they are doing.”
This is how we try to mitigate some wrongdoing, like the personal slight: “He didn’t mean to hurt my feelings. He was unaware his words would do that.” Or take a more political context: “The group that rioted—they were rightfully enraged about injustice, and they lost control; they really didn’t know what they were doing.”
And yet, the personal hurt continues to sting, and after the riot, small businesses remain trashed and innocents lie dead. The egregious words and acts have the same ugly consequences as if the perpetrators were fully in their right minds. That’s how life works, and thus the legal mantra: “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” This is an old, old idea: Leviticus 5:17: “If a person sins and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD’s commands, even though he does not know it, he is guilty and will be held responsible.”
So Jesus wasn’t excusing his executioners, as if they suffered from Alzheimer’s and were completely out of touch with reality. Despite the ignorance that prevented them from seeing the full scope of their depravity, they still needed forgiveness, which implies they were still responsible. To put it in biblical language, they still sinned.
Then again, aren’t all of us perpetually ignorant when it comes to sin? How many times have we said after some terrible word or deed, “What was I thinking?” It’s a recognition that a darkness hovers over the mind and soul so that we fail to grasp what we are about to do. The Bible laments this phenomenon by saying we often do not have eyes to see or ears to hear.
The stain of guilt remains, then, and responsibility falls harshly on our shoulders, even when we are not fully in our right minds (which is always). The prayer of confession at the beginning of the Catholic Mass is spot on: “I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned … through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”
Which brings us to some really good news.
The Father, who knows our darkness and guilt better than we ever will, forgives.
He forgives before we’ve come to our right minds, before we are aware of the gravity of our sin and its consequences, let alone before we confess it. He forgave all that long, long ago, when Jesus hung on the cross. From a divine point of view, forgiveness is a done deal: God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them (2 Cor. 5). But forgiveness from a human perspective, the appropriation of divine forgiveness, is hard won. We recognize God’s omnipotent mercy only as we pass through the narrow gate of repentance. That passage is painful, because it has to squeeze out the ego, pride, self-righteousness, and all our excuses, so that we can finally admit “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”
Once we, by God’s grace, squeeze through, the bright sun of mercy warms the body and lightens the soul. The world is beautiful again. Forgiven.
To repeat: Jesus prayed this prayer before repentance of any sort was forthcoming, during his time and in the generations to come. This is what divine love looks like—forgiving forward. It is the key to grasping the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection, each a moment of divine initiative, taken by a merciful God before a response ever took form in us.
Naturally, since we are “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1), Jesus’ prayer can become our prayer.
For that friend whose words wounded, “Father, forgive her, for she knew not what she did.”
For the family that failed to support in a time of desperate need, “Father, forgive them, for they knew not what they did.”
For the husband who abused his wife, “Father, forgive him, for he knew not what he did.”
For the women who lie about being accosted by men, and minorities who fabricate racial incidents, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
For the churches that judge too quickly and harshly, or worse, abuse the vulnerable and the innocent, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
For businesses that force men and women to work in brutal conditions at unjust wages, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
For white suburban moms who lash out at Chinese women or the unemployed white men who curse immigrants, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
For policemen who abuse and sometimes kill black men, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
For gangs who bring drugs and violence to their neighborhoods, to their homes, to children, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
For judges who rule in favor of the privileged, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
For government leaders whose policies cause suffering and death for thousands upon thousands, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
If you are like me, you balk at one or more of these prayers. What about justice? our minds cry out. We can’t just let perpetrators go! There must be consequences! Of course. Of course.
Then again, angrily demanding consequences is just another name for vengeance. And justice grounded in vengeance is just another hate crime.
Ah, but justice grounded in mercy—that’s the unfathomable revelation of this day. “Father, forgive them ….”
And we’ll never have the mercy to say that prayer until we can also pray, “I confess … through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”