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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