“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
According to the gospel of Luke, Jesus spoke these amazing words his last day of life when he was hanging on the cross where he would die.
Who was he talking to? He was speaking to God, the creator of heaven and earth.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus first refers to God as Father in the temple of Jerusalem when he is twelve years old. He refers to God as Father again when he teaches his disciples.
On the Mount of Olives the night of his arrest, he addresses his prayer to “Father.” Jesus’ frequent use of this term for God communicates a closeness with the creator of the universe that many other terms for God do not express.
“Father, forgive them,” he says from the cross.
Who is he talking about? We sometimes use the word “they” to refer to people we can’t name but whom we credit with some authority.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus prays to God for “them” not because “they” are right but because “they” have gone wrong. Way wrong.
Jesus’ vague reference to “them” covers a multitude of people.
It covers Judas who has betrayed him, the chief priests and temple police who arrested him, and the disciples who have abandoned him.
That vague word “them” covers the people who were watching his crucifixion from a safe distance.
It covers to religious leaders who scoffed at him, Roman soldiers who mocked him, and the criminal beside him who derided him.
It covers all those who actively participated in Jesus’ execution and those whose passivity allowed it to happen.
That word “them” includes all those who at any point in time ignore or deny or betray Jesus. And that includes you. It also includes me.
“They don’t know what they are doing,” Jesus says.
They thought Jesus deserved what he was getting. The religious leaders considered him a blasphemer who claimed power that belonged to God alone.
They thought that Jesus was a threat to the religious establishment and to their tiny nation’s precarious position in the Roman Empire.
They thought that their participation in this horrible event was necessary for the safety of the people.
They didn’t know who they were dealing with. They didn’t realize the significance of what they were doing.
They thought that their actions were necessary, even right and good.
But they were wrong. Very wrong.
“Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.”
Sometimes we don’t know what we are doing either.
As individual Christians and as communities of faith we also sometimes think that we are right when we are very, very wrong.
When we look through history we discover horrendous events done by Christians, sometimes even in the name of Christ. At the time they seemed right.
Only distance has enabled us to see those events for the horrors they really were.
The people of first century Judea didn’t know what they were doing. In the centuries that followed, those who called themselves Christians didn’t know what they were doing.
We Christians of the 21st century don’t know what we are doing, either. We are sinners unaware of the wrongfulness of what we do.
Presbyterians have a comprehensive understanding of sin.
We claim that sin does not refer only to things that we do. Sin is also the fallen condition in which we live.
It’s not that we are sinners because of our actions. Instead, we act in certain ways because we live in sin. That means that all our actions are tainted by sinfulness.
Even our most noble deeds are prompted by mixed motives. And sometimes our sinfulness leads us to believe that heinous wrongs are actually noble and good.
I like our Presbyterian understanding of sin because it means that I can admit that I don’t know what I’m doing.
When I’m in a tough spot and have to make a decision and don’t know the right thing to do, I’m not paralyzed by fear of making the wrong choice. I do the best I can and trust that if I later regret the decision I made, I am forgiven.
When I don’t know what I’m doing and even when I think I do, my sinful actions and my sinful nature are covered because Jesus prayed for me on the cross.
Your sin is covered, too. When you’re at a point of decision and don’t know what to do, you’re covered. When you look back with regret at something you’ve done, you’re covered.
Your misdeeds and mixed motives, you willful actions and your unwitting sins are all covered by the mercy of Christ on the Cross. In Jesus Christ you are forgiven. Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Dr. Barrie Miller Kirby is pastor of Spencer Presbyterian Church.
The public is invited to worship with them Palm Sunday (March 24) at 11:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., Maundy Thursday (March 28) at 7:00 p.m., and Easter Sunday (March 31) at 11:00 a.m. when they celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
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