Date: April 19, 1935
Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. – Luke 23:34
As we page through the life stories of distinguished leaders in human affairs, we may well pause to study their last utterances. These valedictories to life reveal that the great have not always died great. How often in broken words, whispered by faltering, death-marked lips, have men gasped their craving to inflict cruel suffering, or, driven by hate-swollen revenge, shrieked for blood in their last breaths!
There was Herod, calculating murderer, who decreed that most brutal of all slaughters, the massacre of the innocent babes at Bethlehem. When he lay in his deathstruggle and knew that at the end of his despotic reign wild rejoicing would rock the kingdom, he was determined to have his funeral marked with dirge and lament. So in the last moments of his waning strength he sought to wreak his fury upon his enemies by decreeing that they be locked in the arena of Jericho and killed immediately after his death.
When Harun-al-Raschid, calif of a magnificent empire, came down haggard and groaning on his death-bed, a rebel general was dragged before him. Marshaling his drooping energies, this leader of the Mohammedan world shrieked: “Dog! May Allah curse you! If I had only breath for two words, I would say, ‘Kill him!’ May Allah bear me witness that I vow that you shall perish, suffering as no one ever has before!” Within an hour not the official executioner, but the royal butcher was summoned into the death-chamber; and as the dying Harun-al-Raschid looked on in sadistic delight, the captive general was cut to pieces alive, the flesh stripped from the bones of his body.
Now, these songs of dying hatred are not restricted to ancient history, when royal fiends commanded that vanquished enemies be thrown on their funeral pyres. We witness the same spectacles of death-bed depravity in the world that surrounds us. Here is a criminal, led to the gallows, who leaves as his last legacy a string of bloodcurdling curses upon mankind in general and upon his captors and executioners in particular. Here is a father breathing his last, but rallying long enough to disinherit an estranged son or to refuse a distant daughter the privilege of kneeling at his bedside. Here are the harrowing death scenes in which desperate atheists and infidels leap into the night of eternity with the thunder of hell upon their lips.
But this noon, as we commemorate the darkest day of all history, we are to recall the benediction of a dying Martyr. We are to hear a prayer uttered in the agony of a tortured soul and a racked body, that has pronounced its blessing upon multiplied millions. We are to stand in spirit on Calvary’s brow and hear our own divine and perfect High Priest breathe His dying prayer for our pardon.
THE GOOD FRIDAY APPEAL
“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
AN APPEAL OF HEAVEN-WIDE MERCY
This prayer of the dying Christ seems to have been the first of the seven sacred utterances from the cross. As the nails of death crushed through the hands that had been raised in heavenly benediction and lacerated the feet that had led the Savior on holy errands of mercy; as the morbid spectators mingled their cries of derision with the profanity of the Roman executioners and the stinging rebukes of the Jewish churchmen, Christ’s pleading petition, hardly audible above the din and turmoil of the crucifixion, penetrated to the tribunal of heaven and pleaded for forgiveness, not for Himself, but for His enemies.
Others in the throes of death have implored Heaven’s mercy upon themselves and have rightly prayed: “Father, forgive me!” Charles IX, the craven king, who presided over the dripping shambles on St. Bartholomew’s Night, when thousands of his subjects were cut down in a bloody religious massacre, shrieked in frenzied horror as he faced eternity: “What blood, what murders, what evil counsels, have I followed! O my God, pardon me and have mercy on me if Thou canst!” But Christ’s plea is not: “Father, forgive Me,” but, “Father, forgive them”; and that prayer comes from the soul of one whose entire life was an uninterrupted demonstration of perfect holiness, whose absolute sinlessness could not be discredited even by the perjury of malicious conspirators. And with death approaching, He prays not for Himself, not even for His friends, but—wonder of wonders—for His enemies!
We pay our homage to those who have sunk into the eternal slumber with a final word of love and blessing for their fellow-men. We are thrilled by the lingering love shown in the last moments of life by missionaries who plead with fervent entreaty for their converts, by parents who rally their ebbing strength for a last benediction upon their children, by the nation’s dying heroes whose last words have invoked blessings upon their homeland. But here on the cross the eyes of faith behold the Lord of creation, the incarnate God, the Redeemer of the race, the Holy One, whose every purpose was the purest, whose service to weak, short-sighted sinful men was always unreserved self-giving, whose thoughts were deliberate purposes of grace, whose words were comfort-laden messages of truth, and whose deeds were the divine proof of Heaven’s unquenchable love; and in the travail of that sorrow unto death He thinks in this first word not of Himself, not of the tearing, festering, burning wounds, not of His bleeding back, His bruised face, His thorn-crowned head; not of the mockery, the scorn, the cutting taunts, of snarling hatred. He forgets even His abysmal God-forsakenness and the overpowering weight of humanity’s sins that crush Him into the blackest death. Pushing all the base, earth-shaking ingratitude aside, the Son of God, in this exhibition of His divine love, prays—for His enemies!
What an overpowering demonstration there is in all this of that sublime truth which Jesus had given to the world as His new ordinance: “Love your enemies!” Other religious leaders have preached sword and fire and cruel death to those who dared oppose their selfish programs. Even the disciple whom Jesus loved was so obsessed by an ingrained aversion to the unbelieving Samaritans that he ran to Christ and urged Him to invoke burning destruction from the clouds upon those recalcitrant half-breeds. Our own spiritual emotions are often warped by bigotry, surcharged with personal hatred, blinded by carnal bias. But it is Christ, and He alone, who rises over the sordid selfishness of passion-bound men to declare: “Pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” And to show us that He practised what He preached, that He Himself maintained the high ideals that He demands of us, our Savior not only taught this love, not only lived this love,—He died this love!
Think of the wide, all-embracing reach of His dying compassion. His intimate pleading to the Lord of heaven “Father, forgive them” embraces the Roman legionnaires who had just driven the nails of death through His quivering flesh, these worldly-wise, calloused, judicial murderers. His beseeching “Father, forgive them” includes the vacillating populace of Jerusalem that overnight almost had changed the loud acclaim of its hosannas into the venomous “Crucify Him!” His heaven-moving “Father, forgive them” is uttered in behalf of the false witnesses, the fanatical zealots among the Pharisees, the jealous high priests, the proud, self-esteemed Sanhedrin, coarse-minded, unprincipled Pilate. All who raised a blaspheming voice or lifted a murderous hand against the Christ of God are comprehended in this unlimited, unrestricted, unqualified plea for pardon: “Father, forgive them.”
Yet not these alone. In His boundless love Christ’s mercy extends to all the race, steeped as it is in the rankling hatred of everything holy. Never has history known an amnesty so universal in its forgiving power; never a treaty of peace which, like this, has included all the nations of the earth; never a pledge of pardon spoken upon a doomed soul that is so universally applicable to all the children of men as this plea of our dying Savior for a hostile world. Hurdling the barriers that segregate men into conflicting racial groups, breaking down the walls that separate clashing nationalities, Christ’s prayer would gather all of humanity throughout all history under its benediction. Men may be destitute of wealth; they may be underprivileged in respect to the opportunities of life; they may lack mental brilliance and be deprived of health; they may even be obliged to surrender the liberty and the pursuit of happiness which the Declaration of Independence regards as among the certain and inalienable rights with which all men are endowed; but because “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” this holy pleading of a dying Savior enfolds all generations of all men in its everlasting, world-encircling “Father, for give them.”
Remember, this dying plea for forgiveness is not prompted by any sorrow or penitence on the part of Christ’s enemies; it is not an answer to prayers from contrite hearts; it is no pardon spoken in anticipation of later repentance; it is purely Heaven’s deepest, highest, widest mercy, imploring forgiveness for the most heinous sin of all times. No conditions are attached to this plea. The dying Savior does not ask: “Forgive them if they perform these rites, speak these ritual words, earn these prescribed merits.” In the grandeur of His heavenly love He demands no qualifications, insists upon no prerequisites, but pleads the unconditioned petition, “Father, forgive them.”
Nor should we overlook the wealth of solace in this motive of mercy: “For they know not what they do.” It is an evident doctrine of the Scriptures that those who sin in ignorance shall receive less punishment than those who wilfully rebel against better knowledge. Jesus Himself declares: “That servant which knew his Lord’s will and prepared not himself, neither did according to His will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not and did commit things worthy of stripes shall be beaten with few stripes.” Again, reflecting on the tragic fact that the citizens of Galilean cities had rejected His overtures of grace although they were privileged to see His miracles and hear His words, He cried out: “Woe unto thee, Chorazin! Woe unto thee, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon which have been done in you, they had a great while ago repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the Judgment than for you.” Thus does God temper justice. But in this word from the cross Jesus goes even farther. He pleads not for a less severe punishment because of their ignorance, but He directly asks God to forgive them this transgression, the most heinous sin of all history. Now, we have no Scriptural authority which entitles us to generalize and to declare that sins committed unawares are exempt from retributive judgment; for our transgressions are pardoned and our sins removed, whether they be done in ignorance or against better instruction, only when our eternal High Priest fulfils Isaiah’s prophetic promise and stands before the bar of justice to make “intercession for the transgressors.” Yet this we do know, that here on Calvary, the focal point of human hopes, Christ adds mercy to mercy and not only raises His voice in behalf of His murderers, He even bases that petition on their ignorance. Others may insist upon the letter of the law or demand the sixteen ounces of their pound of flesh, but these words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” are the halo of Heaven’s mercy in its highest, fullest radiance.
Here, then, is the very heart and center of the Good Friday message. In the pain of this crucifixion, more agonizing than the worst that disease, accident, murder, persecution, war, oppression, in their totality have inflicted upon men, in the death Christ died for all mankind, we have not merely a touching symbol of self-sacrificing love, not only an exalted example of loyalty to high ideals, not simply a magnificent picture of unswerving devotion to a high-souled principle. Pushing these wilful evasions aside, the appeal of the Savior’s day of death would penetrate into our hearts and souls with the seal and assurance of the Scriptural promises that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself”; that, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”; that “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities”; so that, when Christ cried, “It is finished,” the price for the redemption of our souls and the ransom for sin had been paid and our title to the heavenly mansions sealed forever.
AN APPEAL FOR THE SPIRIT OF CHRIST’S COMPASSION
Need I remind you, then, that this day of all days is the time for repentance, for heart-deep sorrow over our sins; that Good Friday calls for a spiritual inventory, in which, as we prostrate ourselves before the holy God, recognizing the appalling guilt of the sins that drove Christ to Calvary, we ask ourselves whether in the hurry and worry of life as we live it today our faith in Christ is a quickening power within us; whether we love the Crucified with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our might?
There is no more striking evidence of our devotion to Him who loved us first than this, that we apply the spirit of His “Father, forgive them” in the smaller issues of our own lives. Dying Stephen, his body bruised and broken under the impact of the jagged rocks, caught the vision of the opened heaven, with the Son of God sitting at the right hand of the Father, and remembering this plea of his dying Savior, his bleeding lips petitioned God: “Lay not this sin to their charge.” Paul found this conciliatory spirit, and although tracked and persecuted as few men have ever been, he wrote to the Roman Christians: “Bless them which persecute you; bless and curse not. . . . If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink.” Now, I ask you as we pause this noon in the shadow of the cross, have we followed the example of the dying Savior? Have we kept close to the path that apostolic love has blazed for us? Distorted ideals brand this sacred duty of forgiveness and reconciliation as an impracticable delusion, a sign of effeminate weakness. The youth of the land finds its model in the fast-riding, swift-shooting hero, implacable in his sworn desire for revenge. Hysterical mobs take the law into their own hands and find satisfaction in lynching; paid propaganda enflames national and racial hatred to white heat; nations that should work together in cooperative harmony and achievement are split apart by artificially stimulated prejudices.
We might be inclined to repeat the Savior’s prayer for forgiveness on the basis of ignorance when we see a blind world that knows not Christ heedlessly following its own passion for revenge. But what can we say of ourselves, we to whom much has been given and of whom much will therefore be required, we who know Christ and have heard His intercession for sinners? Let us reflect for a moment in the hush of Good Friday and ask ourselves whether we have forgiven those who have offended us the “seventy times seven times” the Savior requires. It is one of the most depressing spectacles in all Christian experience to behold a church-member who prays “Forgive us our trespasses,” yet refuses to translate the “as we forgive those who trespass against us” into a life of peace and conciliation. Think of Christian congregations that are split into feudal factions; members of these churches who worship the same Lord of powerful forgiveness, who profess the same faith, and who are guided by the same hope, yet who live in pagan animosity. Above all, let us not overlook our own easily injured pride and our chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, our absurd and unchristian protestation that we are ready to forgive, but that we cannot forget.
It is not a pretty picture, this survey of human passions, and when compared with the holy example of our dying Savior, it is a vile and ugly portrayal of sin, raw and naked. As we prepare our hearts for the dawn of Easter joy and for the reception of the risen King, let us be strengthened by the realization that the plea from the cross, “Father, forgive them” was spoken for us. Let us implore the impulses and the strength of the Holy Spirit for a better, a richer, a holier life through our Savior. And as the dying thief, hearing this prayer, asked that he be remembered when the victorious Christ had entered His heavenly paradise, so let us beseech Christ for forgiveness and be strengthened by the Savior’s inviolable pledge: “Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise.” With the example and power of that grace let us even unto our last hour live and then die with this prayer for the forces of our hostile, antagonizing world, “Father, forgive them!” God grant it for the crucified Savior’s sake. Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.