by Max Ediger
Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23: 24) Of all the words spoken by Jesus during his suffering, crucifixion and resurrection, this call to God to forgive those who had done such a horrible wrong is the one that perhaps challenges us the most.
The request to God to forgive was not only given for Peter who denied him three times, or only for Judas who betrayed him for a few pieces of silver. Jesus sought forgiveness even for those who hated him, tortured him, lied about him and for those who nailed him to the cross.
Many times during his short ministry, Jesus described what he expected of his followers in regards to forgiveness. The “Lord’s Prayer” suggests that we can only experience forgiveness when we forgive those who do harm to us. In the “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus expands on this idea, confronting us with the need to not only forgive those who are the “enemy” but to go even further by loving them and doing good to them. (Matthew 5: 43-47)
Hanging on the cross, surrounded by many enemies scorning him, taunting him and shouting insults at him, Jesus showed us clearly what those of us who want to be his followers must do: we must forgive even our worst enemies and extend our hand of love and friendship to them.
How does that translate into the world of conflict and fear we live in today? Forgiving the neighbors who toss their garbage onto our carefully manicured lawn, or the people who cut in line in front of us at the supermarket might be relatively easy. But what about the people who set off bombs in an airport, or fly planes into skyscrapers? Are we willing to sincerely say about them, “God, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing”?
I suppose we have many excuses why we can’t (or possibly even shouldn’t) forgive such people. There is absolutely no guarantee that if we do forgive them, they will then seek forgiveness for what they have done. But Jesus did not wait for his enemies to seek forgiveness. He simply offered it out of love. Must we do the same?
Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ” focused almost all of its attention on the physical suffering of Jesus during the days leading up to his crucifixion. Physical suffering during bouts of torture can be horrendous. I have friends who have experienced torture including waterboarding so I have heard the stories. Yet, I do not think the real suffering of Jesus was physical. Our bodies can and do endure a lot of pain. Perhaps the greatest suffering Jesus had to bear was the knowledge that his message, and especially his example on the cross, would be ignored, misrepresented, misinterpreted, or misused by so many people while, at the same time, confessing to be his true followers.
Forgiveness is very difficult in extreme cases, yet it must not be impossible or Jesus would not have asked us to willingly give it to our enemies. This Easter season is a time for us to reflect on this seemingly unrealistic challenge and then decide, as we face our most brutal enemies, can we in all sincerity pray to God, “Forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing”?