The Last Words from the Cross: Day One

Day One: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Day Two: “Verily, I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Day Three: “Woman, behold thy son! Behold, thy Mother!” (John 19:26-27)
Day Four: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
Day Five: “I Thirst.” (John 19:28)
Day Six: “It Is Finished,” (John 19:30)
Day Seven: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 26:46)

There is a grand tradition in Christian liturgy of using the days of Holy Week to reflect on the last words that Jesus spoke in his mortal life. The tradition goes back to the middle ages and has been a formal exercise at least since 1618, when Robert Bellarmine, an Italian Jesuit during the Counter-Reformation, published his book, The Seven Last Words Spoken from the Cross. Not being a liturgical religion, Latter-day Saints do not usually participate in this tradition, which is a shame. For Holy Week this year 2022, I will put my own spin on this liturgical exercise by devoting one post a day to each of the seven last statements from the Cross.

We find the first of the seven traditional Statements from the Cross only in the Gospel of Luke. After being condemned by Pilate and scourged by Roman soldiers, Christ is taken to Calvary and nailed to the cross. The whole time, soldiers, officials, and curious bystanders mock him. They give him vinegar when he asks for water, they taunt him with questions about why he can’t save himself, and they create a sarcastic sign, in both Latin and Hebrew, that says THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

The only thing that Christ says about all of this mockery is, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34-38).

The most common reading of this passage tells us that we should be amazed that Jesus Christ, the Messiah and the incarnation of God, would be so gracious as to ask God to forgive the evil people who are bullying him while he is dying because of their efforts. This has always seemed to me to be too convenient an interpretation—not because it is incorrect, but because Christ forgiving people on the Cross is not really big news. The whole exercise was, according to Christian theology, all about forgiveness. It would have been a huge problem if Christ had been unable to forgive the people who were tormenting him.

Furthermore, if Christ is asking God to forgive them for their actions, then it is not quite correct to say that they “know not what they do.” All of the people involved knew exactly what they were doing. Pilate knew that he was condemning an innocent man because it was politically expedient to do so. The soldiers knew that they were scourging and torturing another human being, and the mockers knew that they were reveling in somebody else’s agonizing pain. Those are horrible crimes no matter who one does them to.

What most people imagine Christ saying here is, “Father, forgive them; for they don’t know who I am.” And if this is what we hear, then we need to examine our assumptions, because it should not matter who the victims are. Is it really worse to torture and bully the God of the Universe, who is actively choosing to endure the suffering, than to torture and brutalize people who have no choice in the matter? Does the fact that they are doing it to Jesus make it worse than doing it to an ordinary child or a family of people trying to escape a war zone?

There is absolutely nothing in the moral logic of Christianity to suggest that mocking, torturing, and killing a person is OK as long as that person is not Jesus Christ—and there is much to suggest that these sorts of things are horribly and equally wrong no matter who one does them to. Christ himself said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt 25:40). I like to think that Christ is testing us here and saying something like, “if you are outraged by what they are doing just because they are doing it to me—and not because everybody deserves the dignity you think I should have—then you have missed the point of my entire life.”

But there is another way that Christ’s persecutors really don’t know what they are doing. They do not realize that they are witnessing the most important thing that has ever happened in the history of the world and that, had they not acted cruelly and carelessly, God’s plans would have been frustrated. If Pilate had decided not to condemn Jesus, or if the soldiers had taken pity on him and let him slip out the back door, then there would have been no crucifixion, no atonement, and no final victory over sin and death.

Perhaps Jesus is reminding his father that these actions o have all been essential to the plan, and it would be churlish to condemn people too much for doing things that had to be done. Judas too was essential to the plan. He had to betray Christ to the Romans. Otherwise, God would have had to call the whole atonement off. When Judas despaired that his sin could never be forgiven, he took his own life (Matt 27:1-5). Maybe he shouldn’t have done that. Maybe if he realized that God’s plans could not move forward without his sinful nature, he would have given himself another chance. And maybe we should go easier on ourselves when we think we have sinned previously and broken the world. Because we probably haven’t.

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” is Christ’s universal message to us all. It does not allow us to excuse our sins or to wallow in our failures. But it does allow us to see our entire selves—the good parts and the bad parts, the strengths and weaknesses, the sinfulness and the repentance—as part of a much bigger picture that is what God intended from the start.

Comments

  1. Kenneth J Norbe says:

    Thanks

  2. I thought that this passage from Slaughterhouse Five echoes what you mentioned about the common construction of “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know who I am.”

    “The visitor from outer space made a serious study of Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be cruel. He concluded that at least part of the trouble was slipshod storytelling in the New Testament. He supposed that the intent of the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low. But the Gospels actually taught this: Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected. So it goes. The visitor from outer space made a gift to the Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had. He still got to say all the lovely and puzzling things he said in the other Gospels. So the people amused themselves one day by nailing him to a cross and planting the cross in the ground. There couldn’t possibly be any repercussions, the lynchers thought. The reader would have to think that, too, since the new Gospel hammered home again and again what a nobody Jesus was. And then, just before the nobody died, the heavens opened up, and there was thunder and lightning. The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son, giving him the full powers and privileges of The Son of the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity. God said this: From this moment on, He will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections.”

  3. Michael Austin says:

    Adam Stevenson,

    Brilliant. I wish I had remembered this passage when I was writing the post.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you for this. I have always wondered at the condemnation Judas receives from us (James Talmage anyone?) when he was only doing what had to be done.

  5. Thank you, Michael. One more thing to look forward to and think about in this Holy Week. This is rich stuff. To be honest, I’ve only really thought (before) about your last point, that even if I think I’ve broken the world, it can be, I can be, the subject of forgiveness.

  6. Roger Hansen says:

    A few years ago, I heard the Orem Chorale sing the spiritual “Take My Mother Home.” I don’t tear up easy, but this paean to Christ is so beautiful, I was overwhelmed. And it still moves me every time I think of it. If you haven’t heard it, there are versions on the Internet. It is important Easter listening. My apologies Michael for being a bit off topic

  7. Copy editing aside: would you all please fix the spelling of *Pilate* in paragraph 1.

  8. This is beautiful. i agree with the premise that all of this mess writ large is necessary for God’s purpose. If we don’t have the opportunity to really choose bad things, then the stakes would not be real and we would not have the capability to learn how to love. The (obscure?) little Mormon “heresy” that God is not outside of the universe also helps us not want to blame God for allowing evil to happen, we are given hope to press forward by the only way possible, there may not be any other way. We may wish, together with Ivan Karamozov to give the ticket back, but it is too late, we may already be on the train. Our eternal self may have never existed outside of the train. Maybe we are just inside a definite reality together with God and They are just helping us the best they can in within the constraints of reality and with a fullness of love. The love involved in the atonement is truly great and wondrous love.
    I am not sure if evil in little specifics is necessary to the great plan. was God’s plan really dependent on Pilate specifically doing what he did, would not God be bigger than any specific person or contingency? Would the whole cruel crucifixion really be necessary, was it possible that all of the atonement might have happened in Gethsemene if no crucifixion had been arranged? Is it possible that terms like “needs be delivered into the hands of evil men”” reflects only a knowledge of what would happen, (all time is present before him), and not a need for a specific set of circumstances/choices to occur? I don’t know, but I suspect that the core of the atonement is what is described in Alma Chapter 7. Maybe just the fact that he knows what we are going through is the root of all the Christolgy we can summon, rather than a transactional settling of accounts? When we know that he knows what it feels like, maybe we can all just give ourselves, and each other a break, and just come home together. We may know not what we do, but He certainly does, and somehow he has actually borne it with us. I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, all I know is that love is at the center. Thank you for this Michael.

  9. Thanks Michael
    A thought
    “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” … to themselves.

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