Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. (Luke 23:34 NIV)
First things first. What is Good Friday about? It is not a day for us to well up in self-righteous anger at the horrible Jewish leaders who plotted Jesus’ death or the cowardly Roman governor who would not prevent it or the cruel Roman soldiers who enjoyed executing Jesus far too much. It is not a day for us to take in a tear-jerker story and find relief in the cleansing properties of a good cry. It is not a day for us to suffer for our sins alongside Jesus, as though we could share the burden by acting unusually somber and dwelling on our guilt for a long time.
Jesus first words from the cross set the tone for this day. They unveil the meaning of this gruesome execution outside the walls of Jerusalem. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” The pain, the cross, the death are all about one thing: forgiveness. It is the main theme of Christianity–not goodness, or success, or sacrifice, but forgiveness. Here, Jesus applies to his executioners the very thing that he was dying to give them: forgiveness.
Not that they were asking for it. What do they do just before Christ’s gracious prayer for them? To what is Jesus responding? Certainly not an apology. They have just fastened his body to two pieces of lumber in a grotesque and exaggerated version of the procedure we use to pin a calendar to the wall. They have pierced his hands and his feet, not with the sharp and precise cuts of a surgeon’s knife, nor the sterilized needle used for body piercings, nor the 10 penny nails a carpenter uses to join two-by-fours. They have taken dirty, rusty iron spikes large enough to keep an adult human being fastened to upright pieces of lumber without his flesh tearing through the nails and his body falling to the ground. They have driven them through his hands and feet with a hammer. This inspires Jesus to say, “Father, forgive them.”
And what do Jesus’ gracious words produce in them? Repentance? Regret? No, as Jesus is forgiving them, they are adding insult to injury. They take his last earthly possessions, his clothing, and use them as the prize in a game of chance. They cast lots for his clothing. Still, Jesus’ forgiveness stands. It’s what this day is about. It’s why he let them nail him to this cross in the first place.
First things first. Good Friday, the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ, is about forgiveness. Our sins crucified Jesus, just as surely as the hands of those soldiers. We cannot always, or even usually, plead ignorance. Still, Jesus pleads for our forgiveness. On the cross he pays for our forgiveness. And though we may add insult to injury by sinning again, Jesus’ prayer remains the same. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”