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Seven Last Words from the Cross: “Father, forgive them…”

What does it take to forgive? A unique mental attitude is required at the natural level; only an infusion of divine grace can elevate that sentiment to the supernatural level.

"Crucifixion" by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666) []

Significantly, the first of Christ’s last words is: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” (Lk 23:24). Luke was not only a sensitive author; he also understood psychology long before it was a course for future teachers.

St. Luke saw the connection between a teacher’s words and life. Therefore, the Jesus we meet in Luke’s Gospel does not merely command prayer and teach prayer; we see Him pray.

Similarly, Luke shows Jesus fashioning parables on forgiveness. Far more importantly, we observe Him put those parables into practice from the pulpit of His cross. In His humanity, Christ teaches the most powerful lesson on forgiveness – by forgiving.

All people desire the experience of forgiveness, so it comes as no surprise that every major religion offers that possibility. Christianity, however, makes the personal experience of it hinge on a believer’s forgiveness of others: “Forgive us our trespasses – as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Having taught His disciples those words, Jesus now showed them a concrete application of the petition by this petition: “Father, forgive them,” which presupposes that Christ the Man has already extended His forgiveness to His executioners and detractors.

What does it take to forgive? A unique mental attitude is required at the natural level; only an infusion of divine grace can elevate that sentiment to the supernatural level. Only then do we perceive that forgiveness is not just an option or a luxury but a necessity.

Christian forgiveness is rooted in the notion of human solidarity. Jesus was not a naive Pollyanna, though; He knew what was in men’s hearts (cf. Jn 2:25). And so, He offers an additional motivation: the knowledge that our common humanity also provides us with another and baser form of solidarity – solidarity in the sin of the world, from Adam at the dawn of time to me in this particular time and place.

That, in turn, calls for a twofold acceptance: first, the awareness of the sinful condition of humanity (which isn’t all that hard to discover or believe); and second, the awareness of our own personal sinfulness (which sometimes takes a lifetime to learn or at least to admit).

The Lord’s Prayer seems to say, then, “If a supernatural love of neighbor doesn’t move you to forgiveness, then remember your own sins and know that every member of the human family has the same basic needs, including forgiveness.”

Jesus, Who never needed forgiveness, forgave readily, even enthusiastically. Like His ancestor Abraham, He was even willing to intercede for sinners (cf. Gen 18). How different from most of us who can dream up the most brilliant excuses for ourselves but simultaneously deny the most legitimate excuses of others. Truly great people don’t need to point an accusing finger at others; petty ones do. Being non-judgmental does not mean calling black white or evil good; it does entail giving others the benefit of the doubt, which Jesus does on Calvary. After all, how could they have knowingly crucified the King of the universe? No, they know not what they do, thank God!

In the same way, every follower of Christ is invited by Him to adopt a generous spirit in evaluating the motivations of those who cause us injury. Jesus goes so far as to command His disciples to ask for forgiveness in the same measure they are prepared to impart it: “Forgive us – as we forgive others.” What a frightful thought for most of our race! God forbid that He should take that petition literally! What does that mean in the practical order – stop reciting the Lord’s Prayer? Well, maybe a moratorium on it until we demonstrate an openness to integrating its message into our daily life.

How might that occur? First, by examining personal patterns of forgiveness. Do I forgive grudgingly, or only when I stand to lose more by holding out, or to please another, or because I’m suffering more than my enemy? In other words, do I want peace and reconciliation for reasons of expediency? Or do I forgive because my love for God bids me to love all His children, even those who harm me?

Second, am I blessed with the ability to forget? So often people say, “I can forgive, but I can never forget what you’ve done.” I would argue that the two go together. The inability to place injuries off center-stage is an indication that all is not well. Humanly speaking, it is so psychologically damaging because it makes the “victim” remain so forever. In His forgiveness, Jesus ceases to be a victim; on the contrary, He becomes the victor. The martyrs, from St. Stephen onward, have always understood that. Forget, and move on with the business of life.

As I heard a man’s confession recently and had just uttered the prayer of absolution, the penitent thanked me and said, “Father, those words are the most beautiful words known to man!” That’s very true, but it’s equally true that no one can claim them who is unprepared to extend them to others.

As the priest commingles the water and wine in the Mass, he prays, “May we come to share in the divinity of Christ, Who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.” How can that prayer become a reality? The adage says that “to err is human, but to forgive is divine.”

In His final hours, Jesus launches out on the road of forgiveness, clearing the way for us to share and receive forgiveness – and all other blessings besides.

(Editor’s note: This is the first of seven reflections by Fr. Stravinskas on the Seven Last Words, leading up to Good Friday. They were originally preached on Good Friday 2017 at the “Tre Ore” at Holy Innocents Church, Manhattan.)

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 274 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.


  1. I think this matter is complex in the extreme. Did Christ pray for both the Jewish culprits like Caiphas and the Romans like Pilate to be forgiven…or the immediate soldiers from both groups who physically brought about His death? If all of the above, why does the Holy Spirit later say through the epistle…” he who destroys you, God will destroy for holy is the temple of God and His temple you are.” Why does God carry out by His active will the 70AD destruction of the temple and of 1.1 million Jews ( Josephus )…and that certainly is not about forgetting neither is the partial blindness that then befalls all Jews going forward with rare exceptions through conversion. I don’t have the answer but neither have I seen one that responds to all these shades of grey. For whom precisely was Christ seeking foregiveness?
    Was it just the immediate soldiers of both groups? Was it the multitudes who ate loaves and fishes produced by Him but were absent when He was in trouble. Or were both Caiphas and Pilate acting with imperfection of choice known to Christ thus reducing their sin to venial…” they know not what they do”. I find it touching despite not knowing the answer. But for whom was it said?

    • Bill B it’s difficult being a philosopher and my trying to be a Christian at once. 陰陽 yīnyáng. You’re familiar with that of course. There is ‘complimentary’ opposing meaning in much of what Christ says as you quote well here. The bright dark Chinese phi proverb in context of Christ has its end in Life or the eternal death of Hell. Christ’s appeal to the Father for forgiveness is real for all whether present or elsewhere. It’s up to Man to respond.

      • But Fr., we’re confronted with a very different non universalist prayer from the same Christ of just hours prior…John 17:9 ” I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me, because they are yours.”
        If anyone is the world that week, it is the at hand Romans ( not the centurion of great faith ) and it is the Jewish leaders with again rare exception like Nicodemus. Was Christ evolving between the two prayer moments from exclusion to universal love or rather was He switching on the cross to accepting the gentiles fully as the Church of Acts and the epistles would slowly do as they grew in wisdom and in grace which growth was said of Christ also. My brain hurts. Why wasn’t Jairus at the foot of the cross as the male John was permitted by the Romans…or Lazarus, or the Canaanite woman and her exorcized daughter.
        Forgive them Father…they know not what they do. Is that like Jn.17:9 about those whom the Father gave Him? The predestined among both Jews and Romans? Or is it about all? I say with the boy in 2 Kngs 4….” my head hurts”.

        • Bill I understand what you are saying about the apparent ambiguity. “I pray for them [in his omniscience he knows the Elect]. I do not pray for the world” quote here seems the key since elsewhere Jn 3:16 God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. When Christ offered his life on the Cross it was for all men, the world God so loved. He repeats that theme “When I’m lifted from the earth I will draw all Men to myself” (Jn 12:32). All men are given knowledge of God’s love either directly thru the Gospels or by the Holy Spirit. “Many are called but few are chosen” [the Elect]. (Mt 22:14) coupled with Jn 12:32 gives us the sense that God’s love reaches out to all. Many respond few persevere when faced with suffering and the Cross. All men wherever they are and however they respond will be judged by Christ. That requires knowledge of Christ love for them in some form or other that is either accepted or rejected. St Therese of Lisieux believed as I do that even the, let’s say Indian living in the Amazon forests who never heard of Christ is susceptible to saving grace, to the far reaching ineffable love that knows no boundaries infuses all souls that respond.

          • I love the sunny bias in your writing. But 70 AD means that in some sense…few living Jews critically involved in His death repented…otherwise as in the case of Nineveh who did repent at Jonah’s threat, the massacre in 70AD would have been called off… being conditional on non repentance. But maybe a handful did but that did not suffice since as Aquinas notes…”reason accounts little as nothing”….which by the way is a wonderful quote to pass on to any parishioner going through scrupulosity….e.g. taking a paper clip home from work is nothing….taking a carton is stealing.

    • Scripture interprets Scripture. Context is vital in understanding and it is crucial to have our questions answered!

      When Jesus said, “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do”, He would be speaking of the elect, those chosen before the foundation of the world. The centurion who said, “surely this was the son of God”, made a statement of faith as did the thief on the cross.

      We all need forgiveness and their testimony of proclaiming Jesus as pure, allowed forgiveness. There were probably others that saw Jesus’s righteous work on the cross and turned from mocking scorn to repentance. Jesus words to His heavenly father gave them comfort. He always thought of others ahead of Himself.

      Another time, Jesus said, “All the that will come to me, I will in no way cast out”. The elect have salvation and the enemies of Christ have a full invitation for pardon as well! The blessed rejoice and the unrepentant have no excuse.

      If you wish, specific scripture can be provided. Ask and I will endeavour to clarify with the word of God. There is never any contradiction with God’s word. We have our misunderstandings, yet God’s word will always sort matter out.

      May the peace of Christ be with you as you ponder important matters.

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