Faith Christian Reformed Church
“Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
This prayer has the most amazing words of divine grace in all of Scripture. Jesus spoke them from a place named the Skull. He was being crucified along with two criminals –one on his right, the other on his left. It was a God-damned way to die. The Law could not have been more clear: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” (Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13)
The crowd gathered at the Skull laughed and scorned him as he died. “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” One of the criminals also hurled insults at Jesus: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” He did not know that Jesus could not simultaneously save himself and the criminal. Only in not saving himself would Jesus save others.
When they hurled their insults at him, Jesus did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. He did not curse the crowd and die, as we might have done. Instead, amazingly, Jesus looked on those who killed him, those who crucified him, those who betrayed him, abandoned him, denied him, mocked him ... Jesus looked on them with love. For them, he prayed: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
They didn’t know.
Neither did Fiona, in the Oscar-nominated film Away from Her. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Fiona has been moved to a care facility. After a thirty-day settling-in period, her husband Grant is allowed to visit her. But by that time, Fiona no longer knows who Grant is. Worse, she has taken a shine to another resident, Aubrey. Fiona helps Aubrey play cards. She helps him in and out of his wheelchair. She even holds his hand—all in the presence of her astonished and heartbroken husband.
Grant tries to reintroduce himself to Fiona. He sits for long hours in the lounge, watching her. He does all he can to spark her memory, but it doesn’t work. At one point, Fiona says to him, “My, you are persistent,” oblivious to the life they shared before Alzheimer’s took her away. It is very tough on Grant, especially when he takes Fiona to their favorite places and she remembers nothing.
She does not know what she is doing. But Grant keeps visiting, and Grant keeps forgiving Fiona. In fact, Grant’s forgiveness proves to be so complete that when Aubrey goes home from the care facility, Grant tries to convince Aubrey’s wife to send him back so that Fiona will be happy again.
At the place called the Skull, they crucified Jesus, along with two criminals - one on his right, the other on his left. One of the criminals joined the mocking crowd. But the other rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since we are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”
He had nothing but a prayer, but in the end, that prayer was all he needed. Jesus assured him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
In this we have hope: Even when we know not what we are doing, Jesus prays for us. Even when we forget him, as Fiona forgets Grant, he neither forgets us nor forsakes us. Even “if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” (2 Tim. 2:13) Amazing words. Amazing grace.
Ryan Faber is pastor of worship & administration at Faith Church (215 E University, Pella).