“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
No man knowingly commits evil. So says Aristotle in his Ethics. I ask my students this question-“Is he right?” Often they (as am I, often) are of two minds. Their first line of thinking leads invariably to an example (and always the same): the Holocaust and genocide. “Did Hitler know he was doing evil? The Nazis believed they were doing good.” The second quickly follows: “But if they didn’t know, then it seems we can’t hold them responsible, so they must have known.”
I appreciate both impulses. The first empathy for another-even in moments of great cruelty, we may believe we are doing good. The second righteous anger-injustice cannot be endured.
Yet their quandary remains: Does empathy or justice win?
As always, the gospel is a third way. Neither wins. Only God wins.
Jesus’ words here encapsulate both. Lying on the cross in the moment of his crucifixion-his agony, his betrayal, his death at the hands of unrighteous men, the Lord of all creation being slain by His creatures! In that moment, He cries out for forgiveness for the very ones who are at that moment driving nails into His hands and feet.
And He does not say: “Father forgive them. They know not what they do.” No, he connects the two. Radically, he calls on His Father and ours to forgive them because they do not know what they do.
Mercy and judgment kiss, and righteousness flourishes.
Jesus in this moment connects both injustice-there are real offenses which demand real and final justice-and mercy-our poverty is so great that we cannot repent well enough or completely enough-in grace, for grace always gives, here His very life for the ones who take His. The Incarnation-Jesus becoming flesh that He might so identify with us.
This verse has given me hope when I had none. I find that often-so often-I don’t know what I do. Moments of cruelty or callousness, harsh words or judgment, neglect or dismissal of others, time ill-spent. All bring me misery-or sometimes not-and all I often do not know.
I am reminded that my hope is not in what I do nor even in who I am-or how can I know myself if I do not know what I do-nor even in knowing whose I am. My hope, my only hope, is in being known in and below and above and beyond my own certainty, doubt, confidence, doubt, fullness, lack. My only certainty is that love ultimately is not solely an abstraction, nor action, nor emotion, but a Person. A Man who cried out for our forgiveness, died to take our judgment, passed through death to open us the way, was raised to give us life, ascended to take us with Him, reigns to put all our and His enemies in subjection, will come again to make us His.
Kyrie Eleison, Christ have mercy. Amen, Come quickly, Lord Jesus.