This is a brief reflection I delivered in chapel at work today. The text for today was Luke 22.39–23.49.
Today is Good Friday. In services taking place all around the world today, Christians will gather to remember the events described in the passage we just read. This morning we take a few moments out from our workday to join in those remembrances.
Let’s focus in on one single statement in this passage. It is found in Luke 23.34: “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’” (NRSV).
Now, there are two ways we could take these words spoken by Jesus from the cross. On the one hand, we could understand them in a limited sense to mean that the people involved in Jesus’ death – the temple police who arrested him, the government officials before whom he sat on trial, the soldiers who mocked him, beat him, and placed him on the cross, the mob who called for his crucifixion – none of them understood exactly who he was. Some in the crowd had undoubtedly been present when Jesus preached and performed miracles of healing. But they did not believe Jesus’ claims. Or, in some cases, they were confused by them and could not see what Jesus was saying. If they had they wouldn’t have done this … right?
But what if we understood Jesus’ words in another way? We can readily see how these words apply to the people described in these Scriptures. What if we took this as more of an existential statement about who we are as human beings, instead of simply a limited statement about these people in this situation?
But that’s offensive, right? I pride myself on knowing things. I hold down a job here, in part at least, and I have responsibilities in many other areas of life, because of what I claim to know. I don’t like having what I know called into question. I get touchy about that sort of thing. I like the way A. K. M. Adam puts this. He writes, “I know a whole lot. I know the sweet kiss of a drowsy child, the scintillating misty hush of a summer sunrise. I know uses of the Greek participle. I know the forlorn plaints from the trampled heart of a student, a friend, a lonely visitor to my office. I know the psalms, I know the working of a well-practiced basketball team, I know [the] contents of the heaps of paper on my desktop. I know fear and doubt, I know pain and desperation, I know joy and pride and satisfaction. In the age of expertise, I am an expert; in the age of “just do it,” I’ve been there and I’ve done that. I know what I am doing.”
But what if, as Jesus says, I don’t really know what I’m doing? In my seeking after knowledge, in my pride, in my lack of self-control, in my selfishness, in my daily failures to love as I ought, I demonstrate that I don’t know what I’m doing, that I haven’t truly learned how to live my life in conformity with the image of Christ that is shown to us in these Scriptures. If we’re honest with ourselves, every single one of us could say the same thing.
Good Friday brings us to the cross. We see Jesus there. But, in the words of one ancient Jewish writer who spoke better than he knew, the Jesus we see there “is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training … He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange” (Wisd. Sol. 2.12, 14, RSV). The Jesus we meet at the cross tells us the truth about who we are, the truth that we do not know what we are doing.
But notice this too. If we stop there we will have seen only half the truth. Having faced the truth about ourselves, we are prepared to see another truth that is just as important: Jesus forgives. The glory of the cross lies in the fact that it does not leave us stranded in our sins, in our false claims to “know what we are doing.” It calls to us to take up our own crosses. To follow Jesus, and in so doing to find forgiveness, and hope, and life.