When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they...
When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.
Forgiveness is so remarkable that it makes headlines. Just from this month’s news:
- “Manuel Charr forgives his attempted assassin”
- “Mother of slain Suffolk man says she forgives alleged killers”
- “Grandmother forgives driver in fatal Northern Kentucky crash”
Beyond danger or losses, there was also the rather multicultural “Ghanaian slapped with hot Pizza ‘forgives’ Korean boss,” and to extend the grace even to an East Coast utility company, “Woman forgives Con Ed for everything.”
Suffering, injury, and hardship are pretty universal experiences. Not every person shares every struggle, and what’s hard for me may not be hard for you, and vice versa. But no one is exempt from the struggles… pain… losses. And without a doubt, you and I will experience something in life that brings up the need for forgiveness. And equally without a doubt, we already have.
Yet the fact that there is an offense or injury out there needing forgiveness doesn’t mean that forgiveness happens. Letting go of one thing that happens in a moment can be surprisingly difficult. Let alone something that happens over and over and over again. And we tend to latch onto small infractions just as much as life-altering tragedies.
And that’s what makes Jesus’ words so remarkable.
You see, forgiveness has been big news before. I suppose you could say that when Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them,” it became the headline of his final words that Friday.
He didn’t wait until heaven to look back and say, “Father, forgive them.”
He didn’t wait for the angels to announce at his empty tomb, “Jesus asked his Father to forgive you.”
He didn’t wait and have the apostles just add it into Scripture later.
It came first. The first recorded statement we have from Jesus as he hung bloodied and beaten on the cross on which he would give up his life in a few torturous hours is for a kind of grace to be extended to his killers that we struggle to extend to family, friends, and even strangers who frustrate us as we navigate this world.
While the church has always taught forgiveness, even pop psychology has come to recognize its healing value, and we do hear more often than ever that those who have suffered a tragedy—perhaps the loss of a child or spouse or other loved one at the hands of someone else—are extending forgiveness right away. Many people cheer them on and are moved by their mercy. A whole bunch of others wonder if they’ve lost their minds. And that’s because our prevailing culture has painted itself into a corner that it should have seen coming but can’t get itself out of. Why? Well Jesus knew why: we don’t know what we’re doing. And that’s another remarkable thing about his first statement from the cross:
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
You see, more than 50 years ago, people who considered themselves rather enlightened encouraged everyone to be free—do what feels good, follow your own rules and not anyone else’s, and make love, not war. The promised result: liberation and blissful peace and harmony.
What has evolved, however, is a culture that is too often over-sensitive, ungracious, and anything but liberated. And people are widely beginning to recognize there’s a problem, even if unable to see the solution. In fact, 2015 was called by many Americans, “The Year Everyone Was Offended by Everything.” Perhaps you saw an article or meme (or a few) circulate on social media. But what’s stunning is that a Google search on the topic pulled up 14.9 million results. Apparently just about everyone agrees that everyone was offended by everything.
It’s kind of hard to understand how a culture so bent on teaching us to just be happy should be so… unhappy. Except that, if you dissect it, it was inevitable.
I don’t think that the me-first, “do what feels right” movements anticipated that freedom from judgment also meant freedom from grace… and without grace, the only thing you have left is judgment.
“Don’t judge me” has become such a common phrase that it’s often used as a humorous “accept me as I am” plea. Ironically you could call that a request for grace. But the intention? That universal rules would go away. “I want my own truth.” “What’s true is only what’s true for me.” Of course, if we accept that, then there is no way we can judge somebody else—unless we share their “truth.”
Unfortunately, though, if you mess up according to your own rules, you can’t come back from that without grace. And who’s going to give it to you?
Freedom from judgment is freedom from grace.
So now with grace unavailable, offense takes over. Why was everyone offended by everything last year? Because we’ve reached a cultural tipping point where if there are no agreed-upon rules, I can only get upset about all my personal rules getting broken. And that offends me. Then you’re offended that I’m offended. So that offends me more.
Without grace, the only thing you have left is judgment.
It’s no wonder Jesus said his executors—and us by extension—didn’t know what they were doing. We don’t know what we’re doing. All our efforts for a happy and free life have bound us up and taken away the freedom that only grace and forgiveness can provide. But if we even recognize it at all, it’s after a lot of damage and heartache—and the need for forgiveness—have taken place.
Jesus modeled the forgiveness, in the most horrific of circumstances, that heals our relationships and brings true freedom. He didn’t just dictate a new rule from the cross. He lived grace in every sense. He didn’t wait to feel like forgiving—recall his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane just the night before, when he asked his Father if there was another way? He prayed for our forgiveness as a first of his final acts.
Jesus also knew how limited our perspective is. Even with the best of intentions, so often we just don’t get it—we can make educated guesses but we can’t predict all the outcomes of our actions, and often we act as if nothing we do affects anyone else. We don’t know what we’re doing. But Jesus also didn’t say, “Dear God, it’s okay what they’re doing because they don’t get it.” No—ignorance wasn’t an excuse. It was still a sin, but Christ’s sacrifice is enough to bathe it in grace—if we’ll only accept it.
But a funny thing happens when we do know what we’ve done. Often the hardest person to forgive is the one looking back at us in the mirror. Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, knew what he had done and took his own life. I think we’re all indoctrinated to celebrate that act—after all, he betrayed the Savior of the World—but did Jesus die for everyone except Judas? I’ve always loved this powerful line from a song I first heard 20 years ago: “And for the man who swung the hammer, [Jesus] died for him too.” If we think of Judas as a Hollywood villain to be wiped out at the end of the film, then we’ve completely missed the message of the Cross. And if we can’t forgive him, no wonder we beat ourselves up over our sins too. If Jesus’ work wasn’t enough to be available to Judas, then is it powerful enough for us?
Someone once said, “Forgiveness is me giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me” (Anonymous).
Now it’s not Scripture, but I think it’s pretty accurate. Jesus gave up the right to punish us for our sins because he desires relationship, not retribution. And make no mistake—it was indeed his right. And our ignorance is never an excuse. When someone unknowingly hurts you, but still leaves you wounded, it’s real. And it still raises a need for forgiveness even if they never realized it happened.
And finally, forgiveness must be me giving up my right to hurt myself as some way to make up for ways I’ve already caused myself damage or suffering. Following Jesus’ example of forgiveness doesn’t just apply to relationships with others. How are you treating you? How have you been hurt by your own actions? Can you show grace to your own self?
Paul Gotthardt, in his book Eight Questions: And the God Who’s Asking, illustrates how pride and humility can each lead us down a different path in relationship to temptation and sin, and whether or not we can embrace the grace and forgiveness God freely extends.
When we remain in pride, which I see as tied directly to unforgiveness, both of others and ourselves, we are misled into thinking, “I can handle this,” which keeps us in a cycle of sin, trying harder, making some progress, continuing to think, “I’ve got this!” and eventually suffering another sin setback.
When we embrace humility, we receive grace in the midst of temptation and follow a cycle of realizing, “God’s got this,” resulting in ongoing restoration and freedom.
Our culture repeatedly tells us that we’ve got this… and we’re good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like us—and if they don’t, then they don’t matter.
But the cross, and Jesus’ headline of forgiveness tell us and lot of freeing “can’ts”:
We can’t save ourselves from sin.
We can’t give enough of ourselves to pay for all our sins.
We can’t expect forgiveness without grace, and we can’t escape judgment without forgiveness. And… we can’t go on living like we can.
Jesus’ first priority, on the Cross and well before it, was to seek and pay for our forgiveness. We don’t know what we’re doing, but he did—and still does. And he offers forgiveness freely, though it cost him everything.
And you know what? The world has been offended ever since.