33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into[g] your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
"Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do"
Is there a more powerful and humbling prayer in scripture? Jesus, in the middle of his deepest pain, asks his father to forgive his oppressors. Who does this? Who prays this prayer not before the pain, or after the pain, but right in the middle of it? What kind of a God chooses not to respond to violence with an even stronger display of violence through vengeance and wrath? A God who looks like Jesus is the answer.
I've been listening to an album called Cherry Blossoms by Andy Squyres on repeat this last while. There is a line in the second song where he sings 'only love can give what vengeance cannot cure, mercy is the burden of the poor'.
I'm a white, western Christian. I'm rich by all accounts. In the midst of that though, there are areas of my life where I feel poor. Whether that's poor in humility or grace right down to being poor from feeling like I have been wronged, stolen of something I once had. Recently I've been reminded of a very painful season in my life where I felt that I was wronged and scapegoated. For some reason every time I listened to Andy's song all I could think of what this situation. I felt like God was telling me 'You don't get off the hook'. Yes it hurt massively, and yes, you may have been wronged but 'mercy is the burden of the poor'. In the loss of friendship, am I willing to extend mercy? Am I hoping they get what's coming to them, that the injustice catches up and they're 'found out' or am I praying for peace and hope and joy for them? Even if they never acknowledge the hurt, will I still pray mercy and love for them?
This is what Jesus does. He doesn't line up the Roman soldiers and those who have abandoned him and say 'Look what you've done? Are you sorry?'
He asks his Father to forgive them. I'm pretty sure his Father answered his prayer, for that prayer originated in the Father's heart in the first place. What is also astounding is Jesus follows through on this post-resurrection. The position of his heart is astounding. He doesn't come back seeking vengeance, he comes back saying, 'Peace be with you.' Let's not forget that when we do eschatology. He comes dispensing mercy and grace.
I also wonder what my heart posture would be if the person I felt hurt by contacted me and said 'I misunderstood you, I see who you really are now.' Would I ask for a qualification of what they really mean? Would I make them recount to me all the ways I feel they have wronged me or will I extend an invite to join me at a table?
Notice Jesus with the thief who acknowledges who Jesus is just before he dies. Jesus doesn't say 'Oh, it's convenient for you now, isn't it? You've nothing to lose. You've done whatever you like and now you turn to me. Sorry buddy. Too late.'
Jesus is so beautifully accepting. It's nearly like it's a no-brainer for Jesus; 'Of course you're welcome to the table. Every one is. I'll see you there soon.' The thief was part of the joy set before Jesus. We all are.
In this fractious post election season, can we follow the example of Jesus and choose a posture of mercy and grace, rather than judgement and unforgiveness? I know I need reminding of this challenge. Only love can give what vengeance cannot cure.
Ferg Breen is married with two kids and is a counsellor, psychotherapist, lecturer and pastor in Dublin. He also performs motivational seminars inspired solely by the work of David Brent.