Who are the ‘them’ that Jesus is forgiving? In a moment of intense humanity, he appeals to God for those at his execution. Besides the faithful women and some followers, Luke records three groups who were there: rulers, the soldiers and people who ‘stood looking on’.
It is fairly certain Pilate was not there and it is difficult to see the Sanhedrin assembled for the event. But the Governor and the Temple Elders will have sent official representatives to observe and report. There are soldiers doing their duty upon orders. And there are the people; Mark refers to them as passers-by. Can we identify with any of these for whom Jesus pleads?
Have we ever taken a smirky pride in accomplishing some punishment – the harsher it is, the more it seems warranted? Are we troubled when we reflect upon the times we were righteous victimizers, when we bullied someone or excluded another from a social clique, insisting on punishment that satisfied our anger and fears or ‘settled a score’ that did not need to be kept?
Or, good soldiers, have we ever regretted that we acted on someone’s order with too much alacrity or been prodded into action too quickly? Have we ever staggered back from our work, shocked at what we have done, trying to dismiss guilt since we were ‘under orders’?
And, passers-by, have we ever gloated over a car crash as we slowly drive by; or allowed ourselves to get caught up in a crowd bent on hurtful activity and stayed – ‘just to see what happens’ – with our own guilt protected by its numbers?
Jesus intervenes for these sinners while they are performing and attending to His crucifixion. And he gives as a reason that ‘they do not know what they are doing.’ When I commit a sin, I think I know what I am about, but I say ‘what the heck’ or ‘I don’t care.’ But when I reflect on that sin in my prayer of confession, I realize, by the grace of Jesus, that the hypocrite is not the one praying but the one sinning, who believes for instants at different times that he can play God. Sin is not a fulfillment, but a denial; it is called ‘death’. We play with death when we do wrong, when we willfully harm ourselves and others. We try to forget our sin even while performing it. When we reflect on that, we realize we really did not know what we were doing. Like the crowd of rulers and soldiers and passers-by – too late – we are those of whom Luke speaks, ‘who had assembled for the spectacle, when they saw what had happened, went home beating their breasts.
Jesus saw too, but earlier, before the evil was accomplished; he sees us, earlier, before we perform our sin. And while we are at it, he says: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’
Thomas Wilson is a retired minister who lives in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.