“Father, Forgive Them”

(Luke 23:34 – Midweek Lent 1 – March 2, 2022)

The last words of a loved one, spoken on the death bed, are often some of the most precious words. When a loved one, in full consciousness and possessing clearest senses, musters the strength to express from a heart of love what means the most in the last hours, how could we forget? We may often recall those last words, cherishing them in our heart.

How much more precious are the words coming from the heart and lips of our Savior, as He hung on the cross! There even in the throes of death, even in His dying woes, Jesus mustered strength to express what meant the most to Him, and what He wanted us to hear. How we should cherish every word; for they tell us of His all-giving love for us.

During this season of Lent, as we gather at the foot of our Savior’s cross, we will focus on the seven words, or sayings, that came from His mouth. We begin with those recorded in Luke 23:34: Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”

What amazing words these are, considering the great hurt Jesus was feeling, even now; being inflicted on Him by the very ones for whom He prayed! Just consider all the pain to which He had been subjected, to bring this death upon Him.

The evening before, imagine the hurt of having one of His own disciples betray Him. Jesus has loved Judas as a close friend; yet Judas had plotted against Him behind His back, and agreed to betray Him for a sum of money. Already Jesus had known all that must take place , as recorded in Psalm 41:9: Even my own familiar friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.” Nonetheless, imagine the hurt Jesus felt when He actually saw Judas appear in the Garden of Gethsemane, accompanied by the mob; and when he felt the kiss of His betrayer on His cheek, to show the soldiers whom to arrest.

Then imagine the hurt as Jesus had been let off to face an unjust and unfair trial. Through those dark hours of the night, as Jesus stood before the Jewish High Court, they brought in witnesses who twisted His words, as Jesus silently bore their false accusations. The truth did not matter to them; getting Jesus condemned to death was all that did. Again, already Jesus had known this must happen, as foretold in Isaiah 53:7: He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth.” When at last Jesus opened His mouth, faithfully testifying that He was the Christ, the Son of God, they accused Him of blasphemy and condemned Him as deserving death.

Then, the pain continued as the Jewish leaders led Jesus before the Gentile court of the Roman governor, whose authority they depended on to have Him executed. Pontius Pilate knew Jesus was innocent. At first, wanting to set Jesus free, he tried to please the people by having Him severely flogged. The Romans soldiers mocked Jesus as any kind of King, putting a crown of thorns on His head. Pilate had the beaten and bloody Jesus stand before His own people saying: “Behold the Man!” But Jesus’ own did not receive Him. Despised and rejected, He heard their bloodthirsty cry: “Crucify Him, crucify Him!” (John 19:5-6)

Then, the bleeding and exhausted Jesus was led out to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. The innocent Lamb of God was led to the slaughter, to die as the worst kind of criminal. The Son of Man had cried out in pain as the hammer drove spikes through His hands and feet, pinning Him to the wooden beams of His cross. And there He would hang for hours, pushing on nailed-pierced feet to get a next gasp of breath as His lungs filled with water.

As Jesus looked out from His dying woes, what did He see and hear? He saw enemies gloating over having gotten the last word against Him. He heard them raising their voices in laughing mockery, relishing His shame and pain, wishing Him damned. He saw soldiers making sport of his pitiful condition, casting lots to see who would win His clothing. And He saw many others who just did not care, passing by with only self-preserving concerns.

Have you and I been hurt by others? Surely, it is impossible to live alongside fellow sinners without feeling hurt in some form or another during the course of our lives.

Maybe we can think of a time when we felt betrayed. Someone who seemed to be a faithful friend turned on us. They went behind our back and shared our secrets with others in harmful ways. They deserted us when we needed them most.

Maybe we can think of a time when we were treated unjustly. We were put on trial, as it were, accused by those who twisted our words and interpreted our actions in the worst possible way. They did not care about the truth, but only to ruin our reputation and bring us harm.

Maybe we can think of times when we were abused. The proud and strong bullies of life pushed and shoved us around. Someone spoke the meanest words, just to hurt our feelings. They made a mockery of who we are, belittling us, shaming us in front of others. They struck out against us to bring harm; and they got away with it, laughing all the way.

How do we respond when we find ourselves in some way hurt by others – whether it was intentional on their part, or simply in ignorance and without a care for what they did?

Unfortunately, our natural response as sinners is to return hurt for hurt. Anger and hatred begin to take over our hearts. We bear unrelenting grudges. We grind our teeth over the other’s fault, wishing somehow to get even. And in one way or another, the unforgiving attitude in our heart comes out in our own sinful ways. It may be that we retaliate with our own hot blast of anger, shooting words like deadly arrows at the heart, striking out with our own hurtful behavior. Or it may be that we turn a cold shoulder, concealing the anger smoldering inside.

This unforgiving spirit can go on for a long time after the actual offense. And the thing is, the person who offended does not even have to be one whom we would call an enemy. It may be someone very close – a spouse, a brother or sister, a friend, a church member. And the offense does not even have to be that great; but it is just the fact that they are so close to us that it hurt the most. It may just be those unfeeling words spoken at the wrong time, or that look that seemed so full of contempt, or the way they appear unthankful for what we do for them. It may be just the way that person walked by without a care in our time of need. It all adds up to feeling scorned for who we are, it hurts our pride.

So there we are, keeping count of the other’s wrongs when they may not even know it. There we are, arming ourselves for how to respond the next time they push our button, ready to put them in their place. There we are bringing up old sins of the past that were supposed to have been forgiven. There we are, letting bitter feelings affect our relationships, bringing more and more distance, even with those we are supposed to love.

We know what Jesus has taught us to do. We say it every time we pray: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Maybe we point to what we feel is our generous spirit, like Peter did that time when he asked Jesus: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” But Jesus’ response taught us that forgiveness is to be boundless: “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22).

We might be inclined to say: “That’s impossible! Who can keep forgiving the same hurtful offense over and over, without any limits? Who can keep forgiving the same hurtful person over and over, even when they show no signs of remorse, no sign of changing their ways?

But that is exactly how Jesus responded: “Father, forgive them.” Here in His first word from the cross, He teaches us where we are to turn in our time of need, and especially when others have hurt us. Let us entrust our lives to our Father in heaven, as His beloved children in Christ.

“Father, forgive them.” It was not a prayer only for friends, those who are easy to like. It was a prayer for enemies, those who hated Him without cause or any thought of repentance – the hard-hearted leaders who passed an unjust sentence; the merciless soldiers who made a sport of His crucifixion; the crowd who mocked and reviled Him in His anguish. There they all were, awaiting His demise like vultures gathering around a gasping and dying creature.

Jesus did not revile in return, but He put the best construction on their behavior and prayed: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” Surely they knew what they were doing, at least as far as their evil plans were concerned. But really they did not know what they were doing. For who among them could have imagined that, as the almighty Son of God in our flesh, as the one who will one day will Judge the world, Jesus could have called down fire from heaven, bringing everlasting death and demise to every one of them in hell.

But He had not come to judge the world, but to save it. He had not come to damn sinners, but to save them. Even now, Jesus was bearing their sins, pleading their forgiveness for the sake of His sacrifice for them, His precious blood running on the cross for them.

And as Jesus prayed, He looked beyond those gathered before Him that day. He looked to the whole world of sinners, every fallen child of Adam who ever had lived or would live in this world. He looked to you and me right here. For was it not our sins that caused our Lord to hang from those nails? Was it not because of our guilt that He came to be unjustly condemned and crucified? Yes, for though the Son of God was completely innocent of all sin, He had come into our flesh to become our Substitute under divine justice. There on the cross the innocent Lamb of God was sacrificed, for there was no other way we could be forgiven all our sins; there was no other way we could be saved from the wrath of God and eternal death and demise in hell.

So as His blood flowed from pierced hands and feet, as He poured out His soul unto death, He poured out His heart in loving prayer for us: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” He did not wait for us to appreciate such a great sacrifice He was making for us. He did not wait for us to shape up our lives before He found it in his heart to forgive. As He gave Himself unto death for us, in His dying woes He prayed that word of forgiveness for us.

God the Father listened to His Son there on the cross. And for the sake of His Son, whose precious blood ran to make atonement for all our sins, the Father has forgiven us. Even now the Father listens to His Son, who is at His right hand interceding for us. As we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:7-9).

He forgives us for all the anger and hatred we have held in our heart. He forgives all the grudges we have born. He forgives all the hurtful retaliation we have plotted and carried out. He forgives us for being slow to forgive. The blood of Jesus that flowed on the cross cleanses away all our sins. He even forgives our sins when we do not know what we do, when we do not really see the extent of our own guilt. We confess with the psalmist: Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults” (Psalm 19:12). And God the Father does; the blood of His Son covers them all, and He counts nothing against us.

So let us take to heart the precious words our Savior spoke from the cross. There in His dying woes, from His heart of love, we hear Him expressing what He most wanted us to hear: “Father, forgive them.” As we continue to recall those words, day by day, the more we take them to heart and cherish them, the more they will change us. The more they will lead us to join our Savior in praying for those who have hurt us: “Father, forgive them.” From here, we go forth with His healing from hurts of the past. From here we go forth as His dear children, set free to live in His love and share it in the most meaningful way with those around us – not only unto our last hour in this world, but beyond in the perfect love of God we will share in heaven.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.