Lent begins next week on Ash Wednesday. This Lent I am going to do a series of reflections on the so-called seven last words of Jesus. I say "so-called" because they do not in fact appear together in the gospels. Rather, each gospel has its own set of words from the cross. In the context of Good Friday liturgies, however, these words have been collected together. I will follow the traditional ordering in this series because it makes sufficient narrative sense. But since they are a collection of lines from different narratives, we'll need to be careful as we go along to understand each of these statements in their original literary and historical context.
Well, enough throat-clearing, here are some thoughts on the first word:
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).
Our first word comes from the book of Luke. Interestingly, so does the last word in the traditional ordering. Coming first fits, because Luke places this line at the beginning of Jesus' crucifixion: "When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, 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'" (Lk 23:33-34a). What is the meaning of this first word of Jesus from the cross? What is its significance for understanding his death?
I think it is significant that Jesus' first word from the cross is a word of invocation. He addresses his father in prayer. This places the whole event of the cross as one which takes place before the face of God the father. The cross is first and foremost not about us, but about God. It is about us. We'll get to that. But the reason why this tragic event of history that took place there and then can be an event that took place for us here and now is that is is an event in the life of God. The incarnate son of God died before the face of God the father.
The cross does not only begin in prayer, it also ends in prayer. The last word in the traditional ordering, which also comes from Luke, reads "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit." Furthermore, the central word in the traditional ordering, which is the only word spoken from the cross in Matthew and Mark, is "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" So, we could say not only that the event of the cross is set in the context of prayer, but also that the event of the cross is an act of prayer. In his death, Jesus addresses God.
So, if the cross of Christ is a prayer, what kind of prayer is it? Well, to answer that question we must return to the content of the first word.
... forgive them ...
Jesus does not ask to be delivered from the cross. He already got his answer to that question in the Garden of Gethsemane. Rather, he asks for forgiveness, not for himself but for those who are crucifying him. When you think about what they were doing to him, it is all the more striking that Jesus asks that they would be forgiven. Jesus asks that his torturers and killers be forgiven. Now that is a true act of mercy.
We might ask ourselves about the scope of the referent of "them." For whom was Jesus asking forgiveness? Was it only for his executioners? Or was Jesus also in some sense asking forgiveness for any and all sinners? Was Jesus praying, "Father, forgive them," on our behalf too? Perhaps. Just raising the question helps to expand how we think of the work of the cross. We often speak of the cross as Christ's vicarious suffering--his suffering on our behalf. And we are right to do so. But we might also speak of the cross as Christ's vicarious repentance--his turning to God and asking for mercy on our behalf. Some have developed whole atonement theories along these lines. I am not necessarily endorsing these views, but I think it is worth thinking through this side of Christ's work on the cross. Another way of putting it is that Christ's priestly office includes both a sacrificial and intercessory aspect. However it is conceptualized, the point is that there is a deep connection between Jesus' prayer, his cross, and our forgiveness.
... for they know not what they do.
I have always found this clause to be odd. Isn't it enough to ask that they be forgiven? Why does it matter than they do not know what they are doing? Is it their ignorance that makes them candidates for forgiveness? Is Jesus assuming a distinction between intentional and non-intentional sin? And is it really true that they do not know what they are doing? Are they accidentally nailing him to the cross? Are they inadvertently lifting him up so that he will suffocate? It seems at first glance that this clause undermines the seriousness of the sin which Jesus is asking his father to forgive.
Of course, they do know they are crucifying Jesus. In that sense, they know what they are doing. So this must mean something else. And, in another sense, we can say that they do not know what they are doing because they do not know the one to whom they are doing it. They know they are crucifying a Jew. But they do not know that they are crucifying King of the Jews. They know they are crucifying a man named Jesus. But they do not know that they are crucifying the Messiah, the Christ. They know they are crucifying a man. But they know not that they are crucifying the very Son of God. And so the Jewish man Jesus, who is the King, the Christ, and the Son of God, pleads to his father to forgive his killers, for they know not who he is and therefore do not know what they are really doing.
Is it helpful to thinking of the cross as a prayer?
What is the scope of Christ's word of forgiveness from the cross?
Is Jesus' true identity the "unknown factor" in the final clause, or is there some better explanation?