When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
This scene at the cross haunts me.
I can think of no more powerful moment of forgiveness than when Jesus forgave his executioners, even as they divided his garments among themselves. They had stripped him of his dignity, tortured him, humiliated him, took his final earthly possessions, and killed him in front of his mother.
I intellectually know that the Bible reports those words, but it’s so hard to believe them, much less to fathom myself replicating them.
But this is what made Jesus so unappealing to the Jews. He forgave his oppressors and tormentors. He literally invited everyone, from the Jewish sinners who defiled the land to the Roman soldiers and officials who exploited them. He even said a Roman Centurion had the greatest faith in all of Israel.
I have wrestled with these words from the cross for years. I haven’t been exploited, oppressed, or tortured, but I do have my own pain and wounds brought about by others. The details are a private matter, but I have wrestled with forgiveness. So many of these wounds were so egregious that I’ve certainly wondered what it would even feel like to actually forgive those who wounded me.
I could say the words, “I forgive them…” In my heart, I felt like I was still holding onto my pain.
They may not have fully known what they were doing, but they should have. They at least knew enough, didn’t they? Didn’t they have any idea how much damage they were inflicting?
We talk about the cross as a place for freedom and life. I’m partial to the Christus Victor understanding of the cross. It’s not perfect or comprehensive in explaining the cross, but I find it helpful to think of Jesus continuing his work as a doctor, healing and saving his people from the power of evil. However, I’ve failed to see how even in forgiving his killers, Jesus was defeating sin and death. The forgiveness he extended was a key part of his victory.
Jesus saw the humanity and worth of the people who were killing him. He had empathy for them, remembering that they weren’t fully aware of what they were doing. He begged God to have mercy on them.
In a moment when we wouldn’t bat an eye at anyone dehumanizing the Roman soldiers as animals, savages, and barbarians hell bent on destruction and death, Jesus gave them a chance for something I’d say they had no right to expect: redemption. He offered them a way out of their evil deeds rather than standing as judge over them, condemning them for their cruelty.
I want to shout, “No, Jesus. They don’t deserve your mercy and empathy!”
What I don’t see as I’m shouting is the power of un-forgiveness and death that have started to creep into my life in that moment. As I think of Jesus dying on the cross, he’s actually opening the way to life through forgiveness, and the power of death only grows stronger the longer I deny it.