Alliance News Feed – Father, Forgive Them

by Gary Fairchild

“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” This is the first of the last seven sayings of Jesus while He was on the cross. No single Gospel contains all seven of the last words of Jesus. But scholars agree this was the first saying.

Who did Jesus have in mind when He spoke these words? I suggest four possibilities.

1. Roman Soldiers

He must have been thinking about the Roman soldiers who were nailing Him to a wooden cross and driving iron spikes through the bones of His ankles and wrists. When they up-righted the cross by sliding it into a hole in the ground, it hit the bottom with a thud, and the nails further ripped at the bone and sinews of His body. Even then, He said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

If their own feet and hands had experienced the torture, they would certainly have known what they were doing. And, if they had known, they would not have done what they did. But either they did not, or they could not empathize with Him whose pain they caused. To this, Jesus says, “Father, forgive them.”

Jesus taught in Matthew 7:12, Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets (NLT). This is empathy.

Similarly, He taught in Luke 10:27, You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (NLT).

Loving others as you would love yourself echoes empathy. Jesus said this was at the heart of the Jewish faith (the law and prophets) and is a core belief and characteristic of Christ followers.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference; it’s the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. It is the ability to feel and share another person’s emotions. It is tenderheartedness toward another person. Empathy can see with another’s eyes, hear with another’s ears, and feel what another person feels.

Empathy provides access to the suffering of others. But empathy does not only identify with others but it also motivates sympathetic action.  

Martin Hoffman is a psychologist who studied the development of empathy. According to Hoffman everyone is born with the capability to feel empathy.

We agree because everyone is created in the image of God, and He is empathetic (Isaiah 53:4). But empathy does not always motivate human action. Other influences can overwhelm it.

Social science researcher Brené Brown says that empathy toward others is a skill. The core of empathy is perspective taking. She also says that perspective taking is normally taught or modeled by parents. The more your perspective is in line with the dominant culture, the less you were probably taught about perspective taking.

Dominate culture can refer to the perspective of a family or the worldview of a tribe, a race, a nationality, a religion, or especially, in our day, a political persuasion. Each of these predispositions can impede empathy.

“What made it easier for the Nazi soldiers to do their ‘duty’—commit murder (genocide)—was the manipulation by the leaders to deflect the individual soldier’s natural empathy for the prisoner and to increase the soldier’s empathy for himself. . . .”

Was this how it was with the Roman soldiers? Were they manipulated to think more about themselves than the One they were torturing?

“Father,” Jesus prayed, “forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

2. Roman Government

Jesus could have been thinking about the Roman government when He prayed for the Father’s forgiveness on behalf of those who “don’t know what they are doing.”

Rome was proud of its law. Roman law still has a huge influence upon the western world. Yet this prestigious legal system was spectacularly undermined by the unjust execution of an innocent man in the most cruel and violent manner.

They did not know what they were doing when they ordered the execution of Jesus, an innocent man. “Father, forgive them,” Jesus prayed.

3. Jewish Religious Leaders

The Jewish religious leaders were on Calvary that day, watching and approving the execution of Jesus. They had colluded with and even urged the Roman governor to execute Jesus (John 19:1–16).

Jesus told the Pharisees that doing to others as you would have them do to you summed up the law and prophets (Matthew 7:12). Jewish religion focused upon study and obedience to the law and prophets. Yet they pressed Pilate to send Jesus to the cross. In doing so, they also undermined the teaching they were trying to promote.

“Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” Jesus prayed.

4. The Crowd

There was a large crowd around the cross that day to watch the spectacle. In Act 8:1, when Stephen was stoned to death, Saul was there, giving approval to his death. The crowd on crucifixion day was doing the same: approving Jesus’ execution. What draws people to see another human being destroyed and to say nothing in protest? Was it morbid curiosity or macabre amusement or perverse duty to a broken moral code, or did they believe He was guilty and deserved the cross?

Certainly not empathy. The watching and approving crowd was as guilty as the soldiers who nailed Him to the cross.

“Father, forgive them,” Jesus prayed. “They don’t know what they are doing.”

Jesus’ Example

Empathy must be taught, or more aptly, ignited in the human heart to turn the sentiment into restraining or sympathetic action. Learning empathy from the example of parents is essential. But not all parents teach empathy, perhaps because they were never shown empathy themselves, never experienced a different culture, or were never exposed to other points of view and therefore are stunted in their own empathy development, especially for people different from themselves. We must look elsewhere for a consistent example of empathy. We must turn to the example of Jesus Christ.

The basic truth of the gospel of Jesus is that God loves the world. He proved His love by forgiving His executioners. Jesus died, and the soldiers lived another day. But we do not remember the soldiers’ names because their apathy offered no hope for the future.

A Way Forward

Pontius Pilate is remembered not for his empathy but for his cowardice and political expediency. No mother names her son Pontius Pilate, and no father aspires for his boy to be like him. Pilate’s apathy offers no hope for the world in turmoil.

Yet we remember Jesus who forgave those who murdered Him. He shows us the “off ramp” to the endless cycle of suffering and conflict and shows us a new way forward. This is love that changes the world. Love that does not forgive is not love.

Benefits of Forgiveness

Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they deserve your forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean condoning or excusing offenses. Forgiveness allows us to move on to a future of new possibilities.

According to the Mayo Clinic, forgiveness brings with it health benefits including improved relationships, decreased anxiety and stress, lower blood pressure, a lowered risk of depression, a stronger immune system, and heart health. Letting go of negative emotions can often have a remarkable impact on the body.

When we hold on to hurt, pain, resentment, and anger, it harms us far more than it harms the offender. Forgiveness frees us to live in the present. Forgiveness allows us to move on without anger, contempt, or seeking revenge.

Forgiveness restores our relationship with God (1 John 1:9).

Key to Eternal Life

It would be nice if love was reciprocated, but frequently it is not. Someone once said, “What do I have to be forgiven for? What have I done?” Seeking forgiveness is more than admitting to doing wrong. Sometimes we need forgiveness for apathy (blindness) to our hurtfulness toward others. Without empathy and forgiveness there cannot be fellowship, community, or even family.

The nonbelieving world depends upon the love and forgiveness of the believing world. And the believing world depends upon the love and forgiveness of the nonbelieving world. Life would not be possible otherwise. Living with an attitude of mutual forgiveness begins with empathy and ends with listening, understanding, friendship, and community. Jesus said that forgiveness of sins is the key to eternal life.

There is ample opportunity for empathy and forgiveness in the world today.

Losing Our Empathy?

From a distance of 2,000 years, the right and wrong of the cross is clear. Jesus’ forgiveness from the cross culminated three years of preaching, healing, teaching, loving, and caring. “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.”

That day everyone went about their cruel work in the presence of grace. The spectacle of the cross is juxtaposed against the forgiveness of Jesus.

Some people say traditional American values are dying. They offer evidence of cruelty, hatred, prejudice, abuse, government conspiracies, religious nationalism, and distain for truth. It’s as if a crowd is gathered around to watch the spectacle. But is this evidence of American individualism? Are we more concerned about ourselves than about those who are heartbroken, suffering, grieving? Are we losing our capacity for empathy?

In the chaos of complaints and cynicism, quiet voices are heard among a remnant of Christ followers, particularly from those who have been hurt and who have lost homes, possessions, livelihoods, and more. They pray, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” These Christ followers know they are modeling a way toward a better future for themselves and others.

Proof of His Love

On the morning of the third day, as dawn pierced the eastern sky, the stone over the grave was rolled away. Jesus was not there; He had risen. He rose from the death the soldiers, Rome, the Jews, and the crowd caused. Of course, they were all afraid; naturally, they should be. But He did not rise for revenge. He rose to forgive them, as proof of His love and to show all generations a better way to live.

More than ever Christ followers must follow the example of Jesus to love through words and deeds of empathy and forgiveness.


Source: Alliance News Feed – Father, Forgive Them

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