Benny Nalkara, CMI
“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). This prayer of forgiveness is considered as one of the most touching words of Jesus from the cross and one of the most unparalleled prayers of history. The passion of Jesus that started in the Garden of Gethsemane turns into a new level with this prayer from the cross. This prayer really reveals the divinity of Jesus. It also expresses the all inclusive and universal vision of the Gospel of Luke that includes the enemy and the sinner in the salvific mission of Jesus. Luke’s depiction of Jesus on the cross is often cited as the quintessential example of unconditional forgiveness.
To whom did Jesus forgive? Whom did he pray for? We don’t have a fully conclusive answer for this question. The first reading gives us the impression that Jesus prayed for the soldiers who harassed, insulted and persecuted him so brutally. But then did Jesus have in mind the ignorance of the Roman soldiers who were mere subservient of the tortuous and powerful officials only? The Jewish leaders and the Roman officials who plotted against him were also might have been the beneficiaries of this prayer of Jesus. He might have included Judas Iscariot, who was in the close company of Jesus for three years and then betrayed him in this list of the ignorant offenders. He might have included all those who are going to misunderstand him and misinterpret his ways in the future in his prayer of forgiveness.
Jesus prayed for those who hurt him because of their “ignorance.” Those who chose the path of forgiveness and reconciliation should reflect upon the “ignorance” of those who hurt them. After the Pentecost Peter reminded the people about their insult to Jesus: “And now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers” (Acts 3:17). St Paul also tells the same thing to the Jews:“For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled these by condemning him” (Acts 13:27). Jesus thinks that even those who deliberately hurt him with their planned attempts might be under the cloud of ignorance and wants to forgive them all.
The most important accusation against Jesus was that he claimed himself to be God. The prayer of unconditional forgiveness was the occasion that Jesus proved before the world without the accompaniment of any miracles or signs that he was God. Only God and those who are raised into the divine realm can forgive others unconditionally. When Jesus prayed, Father, forgive them;for they know not who I am,” he was revealing his identity and vision of life. He was telling the world that he was the Son of God and the love of enemy was his hallmark when he made this prayer even amidst his most excruciating moments on the cross.
The most beautiful lesson of Jesus on love was the teaching on forgiving love. It was so unique and distinct. In fact that teaching of Jesus was a radicalized understanding of the Jewish teaching on love and forgiveness. He insisted that the love of the enemy should be the hallmark and slogan of life of those who follow him. Through his parables and exhortations he taught the people that one should be generous and extravagant in loving and forgiving. The parables of the unforgiving servant (Mt 18:21-35), the prodigal son (father) (Lk 15:11-32) the teaching on the need of countless and boundless acts of forgiveness (Mt 18:22)etc are to be viewed as the examples of the great lessons on forgiveness.The most sublime and unique expressions of this teaching on forgiveness is revealed through his prayer for those who persecuted him. It was an occasion where Jesus walked the talk by “praying for those who abuse” (Lk 6:23). He also revealed to the world by praying to the Father to forgive the offenders that God is no more a judge but a compassionate and loving father for all including the sinners. He is a God who knows that we “do not know.” Through his ardent prayer for forgiveness he gave a new culture of prayer to the world, a culture of knowing the ignorance of others and praying for them. Many consider this prayer of Jesus as the greatest wonder that Jesus performed in his life.
Christian forgiveness often astonishes the world with its unconditional readiness to “show the other cheek” to the offender. The main catalyst for this exemplary behavior from the part of the Christians is nothing but this ultimate lesson from the cross. The focal point of Jesus’ forgiving prayer on the cross is the “not knowing” background or “ignorance” of the enemies and the persecutors. When the unforgiving spirit tend to turn our heart to bitterness, as Christians we should behave as the people who “know better” than the ones who “do not know.” This will help us to be the proponents of the art of forgiving in the model of Jesus Christ.