There once was an innocent man who hung on a cross and died there as false accusations were hurled upon his whipped open body. As he fought for every breath of his life he fought for the life of the guilty and the condemned.
As he looked at the two criminals, one to the right and another to the left, hanging on crosses, and the others who were crucifying him, he spoke:
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23: 34
I know the story, and perhaps you do too. I have heard Jesus’ words many times amazed by his ability to ask his father to forgive the very ones who were killing him.
I wonder could I do the same?
He calls me to this.
And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. Mark 11:25
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. Matthew 6:14-15
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Matthew 18:21-22
During this particular reading of Jesus’ words I see the ending clause, the words, “for they know not what they do.”
What? What do you mean, Jesus? These criminals and these persecutors, they know what they are doing. The two thieves, now paying their sentence, know that stealing is wrong. The men mocking you, whipping you, nailing your hands and your feet to the wooden beams, they know you have not committed a crime. They know innocent blood stains their hands.
As I sat with these words and my questions, I began to think maybe they didn’t really know what they were doing. Maybe they didn’t know they were killing the Son of God, the Savior. Maybe they didn’t know the gravity of their sin or against whom they were sinning.
I have forgiveness issues. I know Jesus asks me, no commands me, to forgive others and so I do it because I want to be obedient. I forgive at least until my offender hurts me again. And then I muster up my obligatory forgiveness again.
Is obligatory forgiveness really forgiveness?
I hold Jesus’ words and see they are filled with compassion and mercy.
…for they know not what they do.
In this moment with his final breaths, he extends mercy and forgiveness, not justice to the unjust.
I, full of breath, look at my offenders and say you should know better. You should know how deeply you have hurt me. You know all that you do.
In the moment I want justice. My soul is too bound to justice. I feel myself leaning further and further to justice and I am reminded of Micah 6:8:
And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
I read these requirements closely and I see the words “to act justly.” I am to act justly, not to administer justice. I am to love mercy. Perhaps, my just act is to cover my offenders in mercy and say, "Father, help me to forgive them for they know not what they do."
Isn’t this what Jesus does for me? All my sins, all my crimes, I know not what I have done. Sometimes I see in part the magnitude of my mistakes, put mostly I am ignorant of the many ways I offend others. I know not how severely I have wounded others. I know not how deeply my sharp words have penetrated tender hearts. I know not how much blood stains my hands.
And Jesus, who no longer hangs on a cross, but stands full of glory in heaven, says to the Father, “my daughter, my beloved is forgiven.”
This forgiveness that covers me and cleanses my bloody hands is not obligatory. It is freely given for greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. His forgiveness draws me closer to Him and to His love.
May I encourage you, as I encourage myself, to set yourself and those who have hurt you free as you ask the Lord to help you forgive and see them as Jesus does?
Lord, may I no longer offer forgiveness as only an act of obedience, but as an act of love and compassion as I acknowledge that none of us truly know the debt of our sins that you paid for at the cross.