On our worst day, Jesus was praying for us. He was praying what He had always preached. As time ran out, as negotiations failed, in the last communique between holy parent and hostage child, the talk was of forgiving enemies, of pardon for persecutors.
This prayer was sent to break a seemingly unending cycle of domestic violence which began with Cain and Abel. The hostage Jesus was condemned by children of the parent to whom He prayed. At bottom, this prayer is a family affair, a child talking to His parent about sisters and brothers who are breaking His heart, taking His life. No wonder we call this a passion narrative.
Despite the line about not-knowing, this prayer is not a defense of those brothers’ and sisters’ actions. It is true they acted in ignorance, but ignorance is not innocence. This prayer is no expert testimony for plea bargaining with God: “Judge, we call to the stand one Jesus, specialist in human affairs, who advises a commuted sentence; after all they didn’t know what they were doing.”
The Jews could perhaps argue a measure of not-knowing, lately among us called deniability: “I don’t remember knowing He was the true Son of God.” And the Romans could argue its equally popular corollary: “Don’t blame us; we were just following orders from the top.”
You and I understand this defense. We do our worst damage when we think we are doing right. Recently a review of documents revealed that a Nazi official in La Chambon, France, during World War II had secretly protected Jewish refugees. He did not live to accept credit for this; Jewish members of the French resistance gunned him down just before the war ended. They did not really know who they were killing. Neither do we.
We all have bloody hands. In the play “2” Nazi leader Hermann Goering at Nuremburg defends himself by arguing that his death camps were no worse than the English saturation bombing of Dresden or the American holocaust that surprised Hiroshima. Our best defense against such charges is that the death of the innocent at our hands is somehow different than the death of innocents at the hands of others. You do not have to side with Nazis to see that this kind of defense does not prove us innocent and put us in the same camp with Jesus.
To plead insufficient knowledge will not do, not because it is not true but because it is not helpful. Such ignorance is not a shield against God’s judgment; it is a locked gate separating us from God’s love. Jesus pleads we be forgiven, not because our ignorance acquits us but because it shuts off our escape. With forgiveness comes knowledge and freedom.
Jesus was not praying a legal argument; He was begging a thoroughly sympathetic judge to act mercifully toward the judge’s own children. In the end we are dependent completely upon the tender mercies of God sought in Jesus’ prayer.
What we need is forgiveness. In the movie The Mission, an eighteenth century slave-trader who murdered his blood brother in a fit of jealous rage becomes a Jesuit in South America. In penance he drags through the mountainous jungle, by a rope tied to his neck, the heavy armor of his former life. He arrives in a Christian Indian village where, in the past, he had taken children by force from their mothers, husbands from their wives. One of the Indians rushes toward him with a knife — and cuts the rope from his neck. The armor clangs down the mountainside; the forgiven murderer sobs with joyful repentance. This is the forgiveness we need; this is what Jesus prays for on Good Friday.
Received, this forgiveness looses more forgiving. The tender mercies which flow into the world from Christ on the cross create more mercy. Getting forgiveness is somehow all tangled up with giving it to others. The echoes of Jesus’ prayer are heard sounding through the centuries from the lips of Christian martyrs.
The spirit of “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do,” is spoken by Stephen under a rain of stones; by James the Righteous just before the blow which killed him; by Thomas More to his executioner; by the dying Anabaptist Michael Sattler with a tongue already cut by his pious torturers; and by Archbishop Romero as his blood spilled upon an altar in El Salvador.
Such mercy does not flow from the unforgiven. Like poor Simon the Pharisee who had no tears with which to wash the feet of Jesus, the Inquisitor has no cleansing compassion. Never is this prayer heard from confident heresy hunters. This should be no surprise for us who so often pray: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It is the Inquisitor’s hands which are tied; the forgiven who are free to offer forgiveness.
Once we do, we can move beyond forgiveness. Jesus wants more for us than the lifting of punishment; he died for reconciliation. The forgiving is the unlocking of the door which stands between the prisoner and return to family, if there is one. And there is.
Jesus’ final vision is a family reunited, a homecoming without anybody missing; a “Yes” answer to the song’s question: “Will the circle be unbroken?” Jesus knew that forgiveness is the only way to that end, so He prayed for it.
In Places in the Heart, a drunken black man in a sleepy Southern town shoots the local sheriff dead on a quiet Sunday afternoon. The killer is lynched by an angry mob. The sheriff’s widow and two small children are left destitute. Hope appears in the form of a black sharecropper who rises to help her work her farm, but he is soon driven off by the Klan. The movie ends with the despairing widow trying to find solace at a small-town church service.
There we see her alone as she receives communion from the minister. Then the scene shifts to show us the person sitting at her side to whom she offers the bread and cup. It is the black sharecropper who had been run out of town. While we try to adjust to his entry into this sacred scene, the sharecropper turns and passes the host to the dead sheriff, somehow resurrected. The revelation closes as the sheriff offers the broken body and the shed blood to his own murderer, sitting beside him, sober, clothed in his right mind.
Jesus calls for us to be forgiven and for us to forgive that such communion may become reality. In this way the love of God makes our worst day a Good Friday.
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