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They Don’t Know What They Are Doing

I often spend Monday mornings ruminating on the sermon I didn’t preach on Sunday. There are, of course, only so many things that can be said, only so many avenues to explore in a given text or texts in 15-20 minutes. There are usually many ideas and/or questions that never make it past the Saturday evening cutting floor. Sometimes it was because I didn’t have the courage to tackle them in public. Sometimes they weren’t relevant to the point I was trying to make. Sometimes there just wasn’t the time. Sometimes it’s all of the above.

Yesterday’s gospel reading was Luke 23:33-43. Jesus, the King of the Jews, bleeding and dying on the cross, insults and lies ringing in his hears, an ironic crown of thorns digging into his skull. I talked about how we need to allow this scene to inform and constrain our understanding of what our king and his kingdom look like rather than taking existing and assumed conceptions of how kings and kingdoms work and the forcibly squeezing Jesus into them. I talked about how this moment in the story of God represents the culmination of everything Jesus had taught and embodied, that suffering love was how the kingdom of God comes.

As I walked the dog this morning on a quiet Monday off, I couldn’t get a question from this text out of my head. It related to Jesus’ prayer in verse 34: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. The simple—possibly even simplistic—question that occupied me today was this: What if Jesus’ prayer were to actually be answered? What if, in other words, the Father were to do precisely what Jesus asked, and forgive the mercenary Roman soldiers who treated crucifixions like sport? Or the Jewish religious leaders who had been zealously plotting this moment for some time and were no doubt exulting in the exposure of this pathetic “king?” Or the curious bystanders who probably couldn’t be much bothered to care? What if—against all odds—the Father were to forgive the people Jesus asked him to forgive? Right then and right there.

My interest in the answerability of Jesus’ dying prayer isn’t just a bit of harmless theological speculation on a Monday off. I have a vested interest, after all, in God forgiving people who don’t know what they are doing. I think we all do. Because we don’t really know what we are doing either, do we?

We don’t know what we are doing as we retain the same addiction to violence and suppression of dissent that we decry in the Romans.

… as we ignore the things that deserve (demand!) our attention and pay endless attention to things that are utterly unworthy of it.

… as we care less about what is true or good or beautiful than we do about what works, what makes us look good, what secures advantages for us.

… as we degrade and objectify one another, as we abuse the weak and vulnerable.

… as we lazily rehearse and celebrate our tribal affiliations, building up walls, imagining that these offer protection from the scary and incomprehensible “other.”

… as we chase headlong after the voices that tell us always and only what our itching ears so desperately want to hear.

… as we hunt around for convenient scapegoats for the things in our world that frustrate and annoy us, the things that wound and confuse us.

… as we angrily shout one another down in the public square, shaming and blaming, mocking and preening, desperate to prop up our fragile identities from all that would challenge or threaten them.

… as we so regularly allow judgment to triumph over mercy; or, allow lazy sentimentalism to triumph over genuine love that is honest and courageous.

And even beyond these culpable sins, we so often don’t know what we are doing as parents and neighbours, as lovers and brothers, as fathers and mothers—not because we are wicked, necessarily, but simply because we are poor and needy and we honestly don’t know how best to love those closest to us.

In so many ways, and with such devastating consequences, we truly don’t know what we are doing. We just don’t. 

And yet… What if Jesus’ prayer as he hung, broken and bleeding on that God-awful cross, were actually answered? What if God actually heard Jesus’ prayer for that confused and conflicted, greedy and wicked, pious and idolatrous assemblage of humanity that stood at the foot of his cross, and did what Jesus asked him to do. Forgave them. Before they asked for it. Before they were convicted of their need for it. Before the idea of repentance even existed as a rumour on the horizon of their darkened minds. Before it ever even occurred to them to ask. Even while they were still actively and eagerly snuffing out the light of life.

What if the Father actually did what Jesus asked of him at that God-awful moment, and pardoned the least likely candidates for forgiveness that could be imagined? Jesus apparently thought God had it in him. Or he hoped so, at any rate. Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing…. They never have.

Am I making too much of a few words from a dying man? Possibly. A thousand objections instantly present themselves. What about repentance? What about responsibility? What about people who have done unspeakable evil? Is God supposed to just forgive everyone, no matter if they acknowledge their wrongdoing or not? Is this even just or morally acceptable? Would it even be permissible for us to forgive like this? Does this not just give license to every kind of depraved wickedness and stupidity imaginable, if there’s just this blank check of forgiveness waiting at the end? Is not the kind of divine forgiveness Jesus is asking for as he gasps for breath on the cross utterly reckless and irresponsible? Possibly. Probably.

But I figure that if anyone has a shot at getting their prayer answered, Jesus would be as likely a candidate as any, right (Gethsemane, notwithstanding)? I’ll cast my lot with Jesus and this unlikely prayer for forgiveness if for no other reason that I think that to be a Christian is to bet on the hope that human depravity and confusion and ignorance is ultimately no match for God’s mercy.


I took the picture above during a visit to a little chapel at the concentration camp in Dachau, Germany this summer. 

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I hesitate to call this beautiful, but for the lack of a better word, it is. Thanks for the article, and the for stunning image of the Dachau crucifix; I recognized Jesus’ face in among the victims there.

    November 22, 2016
    • Me, too. Thank you, Rusty.

      November 22, 2016
  2. rwwilson147 #

    I appreciate your taking the words of Jesus to heart and compassionately engaging with Jesus’ intent and His Father’s possible response. I hear your sensitivity to the uncertainty of a possible blanket forgiveness applying to every and all sinners. It seems though that in that particular context Jesus is not only expressing the the heart and merciful compassion of His Father but also his own awareness that his executioners “were just doing their duty,” “just following orders,” as well as that they had no idea that in “crucifying the Lord of Glory” by whose death the sins of the world will be overcome, they were involved in the most evil act ever done. The mystery of the unintended consequences of what they had done is as much a part of Jesus’ awareness as the unthinking blind injustice of their actions in killing him. Ultimately, it seems far from likely that universalizing forgiveness was what Jesus intended us to understand from his words–given the context of his prayer and that of the rest of the NT witness especially,

    November 23, 2016

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