Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. Luke 23:34
We may have previously shared with you the words every Pauline religious sees daily surrounding the tabernacle in the community chapel. These words—Do not be afraid. I am with you. From here I want to enlighten. Be sorry for sin—were revealed to our founder, Blessed James Alberione, in what he called a “dream.”
If we think of the last of those words, “Be sorry for sin,” we find ourselves grappling with one of our least favorite topics. Not only are we uncomfortable with sin itself, but also with the idea of being sorry for it. To be truly sorry for sin would, after all, mean admitting we committed sin. And that would necessitate examining our conscience, which to tell the truth, we may not even be all that sure of having. We know that we are conscious, but is there really such a thing as a conscience?
A partial answer is suggested by the quote from Luke that we are considering here. In this line from Luke, Jesus is praying to God his Father to forgive his executioners because they do not know what they are doing. In other words, they have buried their conscience, the inner voice of good and evil, within their duty as law officers of Rome. We all admit that considering duty over heart can be a real dilemma for persons in law enforcement.
Looking now at ourselves we might notice a personal penchant for law enforcement. What do I mean? Well, unless we are stone deaf to our own conscience, we have probably found it sending out little warnings when we have become obsessed with a certain behavior of another. “Why does that one do that?” “What brought that on?” “I bet she means me when she says that.” “He should be ashamed of himself, his action is a scandal.” “I’ll never forgive them for the harm they did to my reputation.” And so on.
What do we see going on within our own heart? Aren’t we judging someone on their exterior actions or words? Actually, we are judging them on our perception of what may be their intentions. If the person we are judging was aware of our thoughts they might rightfully say, “Who appointed you God?”
Major embarrassment can be avoided, however, by following the example of Jesus’ dying words as Luke recorded them, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He didn’t say anything about what they should have known; Jesus tells the Father that these men don’t know what they are doing. And, really they didn’t know what they were doing. (Christian tradition does celebrate one soldier, Longinus, who realized what he had done after the fact and publically declared that Jesus was truly the Son of God.) The larger group of soldiers were simply doing their duty, totally ignorant of the wondrous drama of salvation they were participating in.
Think again of that moment. God’s salvation is playing out on that hill. The scene is terrible, violent, bloody, frightening, yet at the same time, glorious and grace-filled, the most beautiful moment in human history. It is our moment, too. We are called upon to relive it at every Eucharist celebration, but also at every moment that we pass judgment. Jesus’ merciful judgment must echo in our conscience whenever we face a moment of decision regarding another person’s intentions. Only God is in the know about anyone’s intentions. We can never be certain that our interpretation is accurate (and having tried to pin down our own intentions at times, we can’t even be sure of why we ourselves do certain things). So, we can do nothing more certain than to imitate the actions, not just of God, but of our better self, Jesus Christ. Our faith in him tells us that we are literally one with him through baptism. We have not only the duty to act as he did, but the power to do so. We are Christian; we are Christ. He acts within us and so it is our nature to forgive as generously and freely as Jesus did at that moment on Calvary, and always does with us whenever we sincerely ask.
Forgiveness is the divine prerogative we most hope in for ourselves, so let us practice it toward others with divine abandon.
This week we invite you to reflect on these Scripture passages:
- Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving each other just as God forgave you in Christ (Ephesians 4: 32).
- Do then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with true compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience; bear with one another and forgive each other if anyone has a grievance against someone else. Just as the Lord forgave you, you too should do the same. But over all these things put on love, which perfects and binds the whole (Colossians 3:12-14).
- Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged;
Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned.
Forgive, and you will be forgiven,
Give, and it will be given to you.
Good measure, pressed down, shaken together,
Overflowing, they shall give into your bosom,
For with the measure you measure
it will be measured out to you in return (Luke 6:37-38).
by Sr. Mary Lea Hill, FSP, author of Blessed Are the Stressed
Suggestions for further reflection on forgiveness: For adults: Forgiveness: A Catholic Approach. For children: I Forgive You
Image: Gerard David (c. 1460 – 13 August 1523)