"Father, Forgive Them"
A leading theologian explores the mystery of one of Jesus’ last sayings.
By Stanley Hauerwas
"Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."—Luke 23:34
Recall holding a just-born infant, or think of an occasion when you cradled a sick and soon-to-die grandparent or elderly friend. We are drawn to embrace those we love, but they can be so precious, fragile, and beautiful that we fear to take hold of them. These cross-shaped words of Jesus, words uttered in agony, put us in a similar position. We are at once drawn to these words, but we fear taking them in our hands, realizing that we cannot comprehend their power.
To comprehend these words we rightly fear would threaten all we hold dear, that is, the everyday. Everyday death always threatens the everyday, but we depend on our death-denying routines to return life to normality. But this death, and these death-determined words, are not ordinary. This is the death of the Son of God, a death that encompasses death, challenging our assumption that we have or can "come to terms with death" on our own terms. To comprehend this death, to be faced with these words, means life can never return to normal.
This first word, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing," seems to offer us comfort. Yet in "Mysterium Paschale" Hans von Balthasar reminds us that this first word from the cross was made the "first word" by virtue of a questionable attempt to harmonize the Gospels. In fact, von Balthasar argues that the first of the seven last words should be the only word we have from the cross in the books of Matthew and Mark, that is, the cry of abandonment.
However, to begin with "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtahani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" asks too much of us. What are we to make of such a cry if this is the Son of God? We cannot suppress the thought: "If you are the Son of God, should you be saying this? If you are God, if you are the Second Person of the Trinity, how can you be abandoned?" This is clearly a God with a problem. There is ample precedence in the Psalms for expressions of being abandoned by God, but we think the Psalms express our despair, our feeling of abandonment, not God's abandonment. We assume, therefore, it is not seemly for God to pray the Psalms. Confronted by these words from the cross, we find it almost impossible for us to resist trying to protect God from being God. Accordingly, we seek some way to explain how or why these words of abandonment could be uttered by Jesus.
Von Balthasar must be wrong. Beginning with Jesus' request that those that crucify him be forgiven—which we try to remember may also include us—seems to offer the kind of explanation we need to save Jesus from the absurdity of being abandoned. These explanations are often called atonement theories. Such theories try to help us understand why Jesus, the son of God, had to die. We think it is really very simple: Jesus had to die because we needed and need to be forgiven. But, ironically, such a focus shifts attention from Jesus to us. This is a fatal turn, I fear, because as soon as we begin to think this is all about us, about our need for forgiveness, bathos drapes the cross, hiding from us the reality that here we first and foremost see God.
Moreover, as soon as these words form the cross are bent to serve our needs, to give us a god we believe we need, it is almost possible to resist entertaining ourselves with speculative readings of Jesus' words from the cross. For example we think what a wonderful savior we have in Jesus, who, even in his agony, kindly offers us forgiveness. Of course we are not all that sure what we have done that requires such forgiveness, but we are willing to try to think up something. Ironically, by trying to understand what it means for us to need forgiveness, too often our attention becomes focused on something called the "human condition" rather than the cross and the God who hangs there.
We can even begin to consider whether we need forgiveness when we did not know what we were doing. It seems Jesus does not understand that we, that is, we who assume modern accounts of responsibility, need to be forgiven only when we know what we have done. However, we give Jesus the benefit of doubt by acknowledging we often do things we should not have done and we may have had some vague sense that we should not have done them. So we probably do need forgiving for what we have done when we may have had some sense we should not have done what we did.
Our narcissism even tempts us to try to understand Jesus' death by analogy with other deaths. Deaths imposed by unjust powers. Deaths resulting from prophetic stands. Deaths that seem meaningless at the time but are made significant by later developments. Deaths that provide some hope against the hopelessness that our own deaths seem to make unavoidable. But Jesus' death is not that of a martyr. These "last words" from the cross are not just another example of truth spoken because nothing is left to lose. By allowing himself to be handed over, Jesus in his dying is not trying to give meaning and purpose to death. As Bonhoeffer observed, Jesus' death and resurrection is not the solution to the problem of death. Rather this is the death of the Son of God.
It is also a stark reminder that these words are not first and foremost about us, about our petty sinfulness. It is the Second Person of the Trinity who asks, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." The Son intimately addresses the Father. We look away, embarrassed by a love so publicly displayed. According to Herbert McCabe, these words, "Father, forgive," are nothing less than the interior life of the Triune God made visible to the eyes of faith. The Son asks the Father to forgive, a forgiveness unimaginable if this is all about us and our struggle to comprehend the meaning of our lives in the face of death. By this deed, by this word, Jesus rules out all speculative theories that seek to subject these words and this death to our understanding about what is required for the reconciliation of the world. In von Balthasar's words:
“Over against such free-wheeling speculation in empty space it should not only be remembered that God is in his (ever free!) sovereignty the absolute ground and meaning of his own action, so that only foolishness can cause us to neglect his actual deeds, in favor of scouting round for other possibilities of acting. But, more than this, we must state positively that to be in solidarity with the lost is something greater than just dying for them in an externally representative manner. It is more than so announcing the Word of God that this proclamation through the opposition it arouses among sinners, happens to lead to a violent death … for the redeeming act consists in a wholly unique bearing of the total sin of the world by the Father's wholly unique Son, whose Godmanhood is alone capable of such an office.”
Is it any wonder we find Good Friday so shattering? On this day and with these words, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing," all our presumptions about God and the salvation wrought by God are rendered presumptuous. Moreover, that is how we discover that what happens on the cross really is about us, but the "what" that is about us challenges our presumptions about what kind of salvation we need. Through the cross of Christ we are drawn into the mystery of the Trinity. This is God's work on our behalf. We are made members of a kingdom governed by a politics of forgiveness and redemption. The world is offered an alternative unimaginable by our sin-determined fantasies.
Such a politics is not constituted by vague longings for distant ideals but rather by flesh and blood. Flesh and blood as real as Christian de Cherge, the Trappist prior of the Tibhirine monastery in Algeria. Christian and his fellow monks knew their refusal to leave Algeria after the rise of Islamic radicals in 1993 might result in their deaths. Anticipating his death—he was beheaded in 1996 by Muslim radicals—Christian left a testament with his family to be opened on his death. In that testament he asks that those who love him pray that he was worthy of such a sacrifice. He expresses the feat that his death will be used to accuse in general these people, these Islamic people, who he has come to love. He ends his testament observing:
“Obviously, my death will justify the opinion of all those who dismissed me as naïve or idealistic: "Let him tell us what he thinks now." But such people should know that my death will satisfy my most burning curiosity. At last, I will be able—if God pleases—to see the children of Islam as He sees them, illuminated in the glory of Christ, sharing in the gift of God's Passion and of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to bring forth our common humanity amidst our differences.
“I give thanks to God for this life, completely mine yet completely theirs, too, to God, who wanted it for joy against, and in spite of, all odds. In this Thank You – which says everything about my life—I include you, my friends past and present, and those friends who will be here at the side of my mother and father, of my sisters and brothers—thank you a thousandfold.
“And to you, too, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you, too I wish this thank-you, this "A-Dieu," whose image is in you also, that we may meet in heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our common Father. Amen! Insha Allah!”
Christian de Cherge is a martyr made possible by Christ's death. His life is a witness that allows us to glimpse what it means to be drawn into the life of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the life nailed to the cross. To so be made part of God's love strips us of all our presumed certainties, making possible lives like that of Christian de Cherge, that is, lives lived in the confidence that Jesus, the only Son of God, alone has the right to ask the Father to forgive people like us who would kill rather than face death. That is why we are rightly drawn to the cross, why we rightly remember Jesus' words, in the hope that we might be for the world the forgiveness made ours through the cross of Christ.
Stanley Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University. He is the author, most recently, of Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words, from which this essay is excerpted.
Used by permission of Brazos, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright © 2005. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.
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