“Father, Forgive Them” (Luke 23:32-43)

Good Friday: Chief Service
April 2, 2010

“Father, Forgive Them” (Luke 23:32-43)

It’s Good Friday, and Jesus is led away to be crucified. Crucifixion was a method of execution that the Romans used, throughout their empire, but not on their own citizens, since it was the most brutal and degrading form of execution they could use. Crucifixion was extreme, slow, cruel, and, for them, not so unusual a punishment, done to common criminals, as a public display that served as a deterrent, to keep the masses under control and keep order in the realm. The Romans didn’t mess around.

So Jesus is led out with two criminals to be subjected to this public death on a cross. He is placed smack dab in the middle of these two wrongdoers, just like he’s one of them. And yet, what wrong has he done? In his ministry he has done only good. Spectacular good: healing diseases, feeding multitudes, casting out demons. Sublime good: speaking as a prophet sent by God, teaching God’s word with heavenly wisdom. Supreme good: forgiving sins, calling sinners to repentance, seeking and saving that which was lost. Yes, Jesus has done only good, nothing wrong, in his ministry. And yet they crucify him.

But what is even more amazing is the first word that comes out of his mouth, as this righteous man is now hanging there nailed to a cross. Jesus lifts up his head to his Father and prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Now this strikes us as strange for a couple of reasons. One, to be in such agony and pain, unjustly, and to have the thought to pray for those who have just put you on that cross–that is amazing. Who would do such a thing? Pray for their forgiveness? Wouldn’t we rather be calling out for revenge, for vengeance to be visited upon these evil men? Wouldn’t we be crying out, maintaining our innocence in the face of such cruel injustice? Yet Jesus does none of this. Instead, he prays, “Father, forgive them.”

And the rest of that sentence–that too strikes us as strange: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Huh? It seems they know exactly what they are doing! They hate Jesus and they are putting him to death, getting this “problem” out of the way. “They know not what they do”? Really? And is Jesus implying that, because “they know not what they do,” they are therefore not responsible for their actions, that they bear no blame, no culpability, for this legalized crime that they, his crucifiers, are committing? What can Jesus mean by this “they know not what they do”?

Who are the “they”? Maybe he means only the Roman soldiers who physically drove in the nails. Those men were only doing their duty, after all. How were they to know who this guy in the middle was? Is that it? No, it’s more than that, much more. The “they” includes all those responsible for his death. It includes the Jewish Sanhedrin, those council members who hated Jesus and had him handed over to Pilate and who stirred up the crowd to cry out “Crucify! Crucify!” Even though Jesus’ opponents hated him and did wrong in getting him killed and bore the responsibility for that–indeed, they were guilty of sin; why else would Jesus pray, “Father, forgive them”?–still, in their wrongdoing, they acted in ignorance. They truly did not know what they were doing, they did not realize what a great sin they were committing, in condemning this man. For this Jesus is, in truth, God’s beloved Son. This Jesus is the Author of life, God’s Chosen One, the Christ, the King of glory. The ignorance of the Jewish leaders did not remove their guilt, and so Jesus prays for their forgiveness–and pays for their forgiveness, as well.

Who are the “they” that Jesus prays for when he says, “Father, forgive them”? Thank God it includes all of us! You and I would not have known who Jesus is, would not have truly known him, unless God had revealed Jesus to us, through the gospel, to be the very Son of God come in the flesh, to save us from our sins and save us for life everlasting. We would not have known that. And yet our sins, your sins and mine–our transgressions and iniquities and wrongdoings are included in the huge pile of sins Jesus is paying for as he hangs there on the cross. You and I as lost and condemned sinners, we are included in our Savior’s wonderful prayer, “Father, forgive them.” Jesus prays for our forgiveness. Jesus pays for our forgiveness, with his holy precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.

By his death on the cross, the Son of God is paying for the sins of the whole world, purchasing forgiveness for all sinners, in all times and places. His blood covers us all. His prayer is interceding for us all. Jesus’ blood and Jesus’ prayer covers both Jews and Romans, jealous council members, hand-washing governors, nail-driving soldiers, mockers and bystanders, weeping women, common criminals–and yes, even good, churchgoing Lutherans.

“Father, forgive them,” Jesus prays. And one man takes Jesus up on his offer. The criminal on the cross next to Jesus–he begins to see who this righteous man is. There is something different about the man in the middle. The thief on the cross begins to think: This man doesn’t act like any criminal I’ve known. He’s a much better man than I have ever been or could hope to be. This man speaks with words touched with grace from heaven. He sounds like he knows this Father, the heavenly Father to whom he is praying. The people around keep mocking him. I hear them saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” Could he really be the Savior? Could he be the Christ? The soldiers, too, they mock him: “If you are the King of the Jews. . . .” And that sign they put over his head, “This is the King of the Jews.” But could it be? Could this man Jesus actually be the King, the Christ, the Messiah? Condemned unjustly, dying unjustly, and yet he prays for their forgiveness. But what about me? Dear God, can there be forgiveness for me also? And so the thief turns his head and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

And Jesus answers the penitent’s prayer: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Here is the forgiveness delivered. Here is Holy Absolution announced. To all dying sinners who look to him in faith, Jesus promises, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” For by his saving death and resurrection, on Good Friday and Easter, our Lord Jesus Christ does “come into his kingdom.” This is how he has a kingdom to bestow. This is how he has a Paradise to share. The King wins the victory over sin and death and establishes a kingdom of peace and forgiveness and life. The Author of life restores Paradise, and it will be even better than it was in the beginning.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Paradise is to dwell in the presence of God forever, and Jesus restores that harmony, beginning even now. Today Jesus is here with us. At our death our souls will dwell securely with him in Paradise. And when Jesus comes again, at the Last Day, he will raise our bodies from the grave and recreate all creation new and glorious. There is both a “now” and a “not yet” in this word and work of Jesus. He comes into his kingdom now, his kingdom of grace. And he will come into his kingdom, fully and manifestly, when he comes again and ushers in the kingdom of glory. Now and not yet. Today and tomorrow and on into the eternal “today” of the Paradise to come, we are and will be with Christ Jesus our Lord.

What happens on Good Friday is very good indeed. “Father, forgive them.” Jesus prays for us and pays for our forgiveness. In response, we pray to our Savior, “Jesus, remember me.” And yes, penitent sinner, Jesus does and will remember you. Today you have the assurance of Christ’s kingdom of grace, his coming kingdom of glory, and his Paradise of eternal life, where we will dwell with him forever. Truly, this is a Good Friday.

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Published in: on April 2, 2010 at 10:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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