"Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."--St. Luke 23: 84
It was probably at about nine o'clock on Good Friday morning that our Saviour was crucified, so that He must have been for six hours on the Cross. Three of the sayings from the Cross which are recorded were spoken before mid-day. The first of the sayings evidently was said just as the agony of the cruel nailing to the Cross was sharpest. It was the moment when the ordinary criminal shrieked and cursed with pain. Our Saviour too uttered a cry, but it was neither imprecation nor complaint. It was, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."
This word of our Divine King, spoken under the tragic circumstances, permits us to see into His character. Let us meditate upon one or two traits which shine forth in it.
First, notice that at a moment when the world would say that Christ had right to think of Himself, He was thinking of others. These others were His enemies, but of that I do not speak now. I wish to dwell only on the thought that He put Himself aside and fixed His mind on the welfare of others.
Great love, in trying moments, will often escape from itself, and fasten on others its solicitude. I remember how two aged people were desperately ill in the same house. A. third person, the life-long companion of these two people, was in constant anxiety lest these, her dearest ones, be taken from her side. Day by day, the illness of each grew more hopeless. The end was inevitable. Yet, she who outlived them both, passed from one room to the other with cheer and love. The loneliness was drawing down, thick and black, over her own life, but neither invalid suspected. She who had the hardest burden to bear knew only what she thought of them. She wept when alone before the prospect of what was to come upon her. But as she put her hand upon either door, a vigorous effort of will smoothed out every trace of pain; the smile of an abounding love played about her lips, and she and the brightness of a heavenly light entered the sick room together. Do you think she had right to think of herself? Well, it was a right which she would not claim. She lost thought of herself in thinking of others.
All this is beautiful; but the self-forgetfulness of our Saviour was more than that. This first thought in the anguish of the Cross was not for His beloved, but for His enemies, those who were responsible for all His pain. I may pause to say that these enemies were not the Roman soldiers who were the mechanical tools of their masters. The people to whom He referred were the Jewish authorities who had turned every stone to compass His death: they were His real enemies. So you see that, in refusing to think of Himself in this moment when the world would say that He had full right to think only of Himself, His thoughts went out to the ends of His acquaintance, and touched at last those who, in sympathy and care, stood farthest removed.
Now let us go a step farther. He thought of His enemies, but He did not reflect upon their villainy, their harshness, their malice. His thought touched them and then glanced upward in prayer to the Father. "Father," He prayed, "forgive them; for they know not what they do."
It is no accident that forgiveness stands first among the words of our Saviour on the Day of His sacrifice. He had impressed upon His disciples, months before, the essential need of forgiveness : "Unless," He had said, "ye from your hearts forgive everyone his brother Ms trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses." That is sweeping, exact. How God retains sin upon the unforgiving man, I can tell you no better than by repeating an old story from authentic history. Two friends who lived in the middle of the third century became estranged one from the other. One was a priest; the other a layman. The layman felt the bitterness of the enmity, and desired reconciliation. Message after message he sent to the priest begging his forgiveness; but the priest coldly ignored the entreaties. A little later a persecution arose. The priest was suspected, arrested; because he bravely confessed his office and faith, he was ordered to sacrifice to the gods, or die. Even when tortured, he refused to yield; and, like a hero, he was led out to be executed. As he passed by, his old friend ran up and begged forgiveness. The priest would not even look upon him: his heart was still as flint against him. "O Martyr of Christ," the anxious friend wailed, "forgive me!" But the priest answered not a syllable. By this time he had reached the block. The executioner bade him kneel down and put his head upon it. Suddenly the once brave man turned pale, shook like a reed, and whimpered that he would offer the heathen sacrifice after all. The old friend sprang forward: "No, no," he cried, "do not say so; do not deny Christ; do not lose what you have all but won!" But the unforgiving man, turned coward, would not hear; he went away denying His Saviour. Instantly the poor layman took His place. He was the Christian Martyr on that day.
The lesson of this story is clear. To persist in hating, is to harden the heart; and when the heart is hard, not even the love of God can pierce the barrier. God will not forgive the unforgiving. He can live only in the forgiving soul.
People who accept this truth, excuse themselves by saying that the wrongs done them are extraordinary. "You," they say, "can forgive; because your wrongs are only superficial. They do not affect your honour." Such people know their own injuries so exclusively that they lack imagination to grasp the wrongs done to others. The world is full of people who need forgiveness for excruciating injury which they have inflicted. When we glance at our Saviour's forgiveness, we see that lie was forgiving the most stinging crimes of which the world has knowledge. Those who had brought Him to His wretchedness, meant to finish not only His personal existence, but also His kingdom, His teaching, all that He had worked for. Moreover, the pain that they had caused was not His alone: the hardest part of it must have been that He could not forget the distress of His mother and of His dearest friends. All the injuries that could be heaped upon human flesh, were heaped upon Him.
So when God whispers to you that you must forgive, forget the bitter scores which your forgiveness must rub out, and think only of the woes which the Lord Himself forgave. Genuine forgiveness has been achieved. It must be achieved again. And again. And again. And again--till all are forgiven.
If there is any heart here today which feels itself growing hard, then to him whose heart that is I hold up the perfect forgiveness of Jesus. To reach old age unchildlike, resentful, bitter, is to reach the end of the way, and not to find heaven there. Keep your hearts tender. Forgive; that the God of forgiveness may live in you.
But this is not the end. "Forgive them," said Jesus; "for they know not what they do." We can never forget that He who spoke these words, had said not twelve hours before, "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father." The forgiveness in this first sentence from the Cross is the forgiveness of redeemed humanity. The forgiveness of the Cross is the revelation of the forgiveness of the Father in Heaven. The answer of that prayer is certain. All Heaven is still sounding with the response: "I forgive them; for they know not what they do." It is on Good Friday that we begin afresh to know who God is. He is no exacting taskmaster. He is not waiting to catch and trip us in our blundering ways. He is our Father. He does care. He is not casting up our sins against us. He knows how we grope and stumble and fall. He pities us. He loves us even when we fail. He forgives us because we know not what we do.
It is a shallow philosophy which pleads that men will become careless if they believe in God's patience. If a man really sees, even for the flash of one transcendent moment, how God bears with us, how He excuses us, how He lifts us from our falls, how He never is weary of waiting for us to mend our ways, then a man will cry, out of a heart overflowing with gratitude, "O my Saviour, O my King, if Thy love is so forgiving, so strong, I will arise and go to my Father. I will, with His help, so live that I may please Him at the last. All good deeds shall become possible for me. Even in my darkest hour I too shall cry, 'Father, forgive them; for, from my heart, I forgive them too.'"
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