[Reflections on the Gospel Lectionary Reading for Nov 21, 2010]
In the midst of the agonizing pain of crucifixion, Jesus requested, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Through Jesus’ merciful grace, his executioners were forgiven their sin of putting the Son of God to death.
They did not know what they were doing. They thought they were upholding the law, God’s law. They had a covenant with God, and that covenant demanded that they deal appropriately with blasphemers. Since Jesus went around declaring that people had been forgiven and calling God “Father,” they accused him of claiming to be God. In his great mercy, he used the very thing (forgiveness) that got him into trouble to benefit those who were having him tortured and killed.
They did not know what they were doing. They were passing judgment on another human. Although they imagined that Jesus was pretending to be God, it was actually they who were pretending to be God. God instructs us to be forgiving, so when we forgive, we are not pretending to be God; we are being servants of God through obedience. We are children of God, so when we call God “Father,” we are not pretending to be God; we are acknowledging our relationship to our heavenly parent.
They did not know what they were doing. They thought they were acting on behalf of righteousness, but they were actually acting in the service of evil. God does not tell us to avoid calling God “Father;” nor does God tell us to never forgive others. One very important thing that God tells us, however, is to not judge others. Judgment is reserved for God.
They did not know what they were doing. They were the “church” in Jesus’ day. They were the ones who studied scripture. They were the ones who had dedicated their lives to God. They were the ones who pressed their society to follow the Word of God. They were the ones who were supposed to show the world what righteousness looked like through their own behavior.
But they did not know what they were doing. They thought they had a handle on all things righteous, and so they followed their own opinions and ideas. They were no longer submitting themselves to God. They had confidence that they could discern right from wrong. They had taken another bite out of that ancient fruit from the Garden of Eden. They were sitting comfortably in the seat of judgment, and they enjoyed the prestige of that seat within their community.
Do we in the church today know what we are doing? Have we become comfortable and stubborn with our own notions of righteousness? Does our Christianity express itself more often in judgment than mercy? Are we more quick to judge than to forgive?
Later in this same passage of Christ’s experience on the cross; He proves not only to be quick to forgive but also quick to proclaim a sinner’s salvation. There is a thief on a cross next to Jesus. He does not deny his guilt. There is no hint that this man had ever been baptized. There is no evidence that he had ever recited the sinner’s prayer and given his life to Christ. This man had not jumped through any hoops to earn salvation. All this man did was believe that Jesus was who he claimed to be, and Jesus responded by affirming that this thief would join our Lord in paradise.
We know that we are saved by faith alone, and yet often we behave like we don’t know what we are doing. We ignore what we know about the sufficiency of faith and begin to want to layer on new requirements. Usually these additional tasks are set up for others rather than for ourselves. We forget that it is not our job to judge others, and we get caught up in a work that seems noble to us but that fundamentally rests on our own confidence that we are the final judge on right and wrong, on who is good and bad.
We sometimes take another bite out of the ancient fruit from the Garden of Eden. Sometimes, we do not know what we are doing. Praise God that our’s is a forgiving Lord!