They know not what they do

Daily Reading for March 21 • Good Friday

In Jesus’ time, crucifixion was not against the law. It was carried out by the law. It was an exceptionally gruesome method of torturing a person to death, carried out by the government not in secret dungeons but in public. Everyone knew what it looked like, smelled like, sounded like—the horrific sight of completely naked men in agony, the smell and sight of their bodily functions taking place in full view of all, the sounds of their groans and labored breathing going on for hours and, in some cases, for days. Perhaps worst of all is the fact that no one cared. All of this took place in public, and no one cared. That is why, from the early Christian era, a verse from the book of Lamentations was attached to the Good Friday scene: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” (1:12). . . .

The crosses were placed by the roadside as a form of public announcement: these miserable beings that you see before you are not of the same species as the rest of us. The purpose of pinning the victims up like insects was to invite the gratuitous abuse of the passersby. Those crowds understood that their role was to increase, by jeering and mocking, the degredation of those who had been thus designated unfit to live. The theological meaning of this is that crucifixion is an enactment of the worst that we are, an embodiment of the most sadistic and inhuman impulses that lie within us. The Son of God absorbed all that, drew it into himself. All the cruelty of the human race came to focus in him.

In his first word from the Cross, Jesus does not pray for the good and the innocent. He prays for people doing terrible things. He prays for men who are committing sadistic acts, offering them to his Father’s mercy. It is for his enemies that he prays, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

There is a suggestion here that human beings are in the grip of something they do not fully comprehend. The evil that lodges in the human heart is greater than we know. This means at least two things. It means that there is nothing that you or I could ever do, or say, or be, that would put us beyond the reach of Jesus’ prayers. Nothing at all. And it also means that no one else, no one at all, is beyond that reach. His prayer for the worst of the worst comes from a place beyond human understanding. From that sphere of divine power we hear these words today as though they were spoken for the first time, as though they were being spoken at this very moment by the living Spirit, spoken of each one of us: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

From The Seven Last Words from the Cross by Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans, 2005).

Past Posts