“Father forgive them, they know not what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) This is the first of the traditional “last seven words” of Jesus. Jesus has just endured the long night of scouring and is abandoned, mocked, and spat upon. He has been stripped of all human dignity and now hangs humiliated upon the cross: “so marred were his features, beyond that of mortals; his appearance, beyond that of human beings” (Isaiah 52:14). Yet his first of his last words are of forgiveness.
At first blush we think, “Sure…wasn’t his whole ministry about forgiveness, reconciliation, and bringing all on the margins to the center of God’s love? Of course, Jesus would, in his final moments, speak the words that comprise his mission and ministry. Of course, he would speak words of forgiveness. Of course…., he is fully human and also fully divine. Me? Sadly, too human on most days. Forgiveness is not often my first words; sometimes not even my last words.
Some Scripture scholars have suggested that Jesus repeats this prayer several times as he awaited his death. I can’t say as I think their exegesis is particularly strong (but then I am hardly the scholar) – yet the all too human part of me likes the suggestion. Maybe it is like a mantra. Jesus repeating, “Father, forgive them. Father, forgive them….” Jesus praying to his heavenly Father, asking for help to remain oriented to God’s mission and not the human possibility of anger, despair, and striking out at those who mocked and beat him. “Father forgive them…” is not a declaration that they are forgiven, but a plea, a prayer, and loving hope.
That is something I need to remember when I am tempted to make forgiveness other than the first word. Maybe the 10th word. In between I want to let you know that you have hurt me, you need to make thing right, and our friendship won’t be the same until you fix this mess, until you demonstrate remorse, repentance, and righteousness… then I’ll think about it. Maybe being the 10th word is optimistic. It is a human weakness.
Henri Nouwen writes, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly, and so we need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. Forgiveness is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.”
If we can’t practice forgiveness, then perhaps we don’t even practice love poorly, but not at all. And so we are reminded to practice. And perhaps that is the secret. We simply need to practice forgiveness as our first words in order than we learn to love – perhaps poorly at first, but more completely in time. Where to begin? A first step may be to remember to join Jesus in his plea, his prayer, and his loving hope, “Father forgive them….”