The tenth Station of the Cross is the crucifixion of Jesus. Another name for the Stations is the Way of the Cross, as we follow in the steps of Jesus as he walks to the cross. One might expect the Stations to end when Jesus is actually hung from the cross, or maybe when Jesus dies. However, the Stations traditionally end with the hasty burial of Jesus, with the large stone rolled in front of the tomb. The Stations leave us at the end of Good Friday, waiting in that awful loneliness and fear for the Resurrection. Each time we walk the Way of the Cross, we are reminded of what I’m sure the disciples thought was the end of the story… but we know it isn’t.
The Message reads:
When they got to the place called Skull Hill, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right, the other on his left.
Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Dividing up his clothes, they threw dice for them.
And the NRSV reads:
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[ Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing.
I learned something this morning, just in looking up these passages. In the NRSV quote, the sentence where Jesus prays for forgiveness for his executioners: this sentence does not appear in all of the ancient sources; many of the ancient sources of this text do not include this line. What’s more, Luke’s gospel is the only one of the four that includes these words of Jesus.
This prayer of Jesus may be the most astounding act of forgiveness that we see in the entire bible. I mean, it is astounding for Jesus to bring about the forgiveness of all of us in the world, but that is just too big, too much for us to get our brains around. But this one act — Father, forgive them — it is specific, particular. And it is a plea for forgiveness for the men who flogged and mocked and executed him. Whenever I read or hear this story, this prayer of Jesus makes me feel so completely unworthy. I mean, I have trouble sometimes forgiving people who cut me off in traffic — how would I ever be able to forgive someone for killing me? This makes me feel so small and petty, undeserving of the forgiveness that God offers to all of us through Jesus.
Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. These are soldiers who flog and crucify Jesus. Though some of their actions seem unnecessarily cruel to us, there is one thing we have to remember: soldiers follow orders. Once you join the military, you give up the right to make decisions in your work. You can’t disobey orders because you dislike the person who gives them. You can’t disobey orders because you believe that the government’s policy is wrong. You have made promises, and you must fulfill them. Nowadays, you can refuse to carry out an order that is illegal, but there is a definite cost to this. In the Roman Empire of 30-40 AD, I don’t know whether this was the case. See, these soldiers may very well have had no idea who Jesus was. They were following orders, carrying out the day’s executions. I can well imagine them returning home at the end of the day, sick and miserable at the day’s work, holding tight to wife and children, breathing in their life and soaking in their love as an antidote to the killing.
Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. It is commonly held that Luke was a physician, a healer. Perhaps Luke was aware of what happens to us when we do not extend forgiveness to those who have wronged us. The anger, grief, and fear will fester inside us, poisoning not only our hearts but our bodies as well. Not-forgiving can bring us depression, high blood pressure, heart attack, migraine, aching joints. Luke would know that Jesus would not want to carry this poison to the grave, into God’s kingdom. As his final act, Jesus extends forgiveness to his executioners, freeing his own soul to rise to God.
Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. Maybe it is small and petty of me, but I find comfort for my own not-forgivenesses in the fact that there is doubt as to whether this prayer of Jesus was in the original manuscripts. This is an amazing and a frightening example Jesus has set for us, and it is very hard to live up to. Forgiving those who have wronged us is hard work. We forgive as a response to God forgiving us… but it still isn’t easy. Today I pray, Father, forgive me, for I do not not what I am doing; forgive all of us, for none of us truly knows what we are doing.