Then Jesus said, ‘Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.’Luke 23:34a
Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness is a fitting place to start a series of reflections on the words of Christ during the crucifixion, as Luke presents these words being spoken immediately after Jesus is raised on the cross. The immediate context of the prayer indicates that Jesus is praying for the Roman soldiers who have carried out the crucifixion (Luke 23:33) and divide Jesus’ clothing between themselves (23:34b). However, the prayer is located within Luke’s account of Jesus’ interaction with those around the cross during the crucifixion (23:32–43). Jesus’ intercession therefore encompasses all the groups that Luke mentions – the criminals crucified with Jesus, the watching crowd, and the Jewish leaders, in addition to the soldiers themselves (23:35–39).
Jesus’ offer of forgiveness for these groups and individuals, expressed as a prayer, reflects the universality of God’s love for humanity. As the Son of God, Jesus not only knows the Father intimately (Luke 10:22), but shares his nature (John 10:30). The inclusion of the Roman soldiers reveals this love reaches beyond the Jews, the historic people of God, to those acknowledged as their enemies. It embraces on the same basis both the religious leaders, with their elevated status in society, and the despised criminals. All need God’s forgiveness, which is made available to them through the death of Jesus Christ, though they all remain ignorant of the significance of what they are witnessing.
The reference to this ignorance in the prayer illuminates the nature of sin. This does not consist solely of deliberately wrong acts, but in everything that falls short of the perfect ‘goodness’ of God’s creation, which he intended this world to retain (Genesis 1:31a). Jesus’ words could be regarded as excusing the actions of the soldiers and others because they do not realise the enormity of the crime they are committing. However, Jesus’ prayer shows they still need God’s forgiveness despite their lack of knowledge and their seemingly justifiable reasons for participating in the execution of God’s Son. The Roman soldiers were both following orders and understandably ignorant of who they were crucifying. The Jewish leaders believed they were acting to save the Jewish nation from Roman reprisals (John 10:48–50). The criminals were disappointed by Jesus not fulfilling their expectations of the Messiah (Luke 23:39). In a corrupted world that is no longer ‘good’, whatever we do, even those acts carried out with the best of intentions, can become tainted with sinful motives or lead to bad outcomes. All of us are therefore continually in need of God’s forgiveness.
That Jesus prays for God’s blessing on his oppressors is in sharp contrast to their words and actions. In so doing he puts into practise the instructions he gave his disciples to ‘Love your enemies… pray for those who mistreat you’ (Luke 6:27–28), even as he suffers the intense physical agony and public humiliation of crucifixion. Throughout his ministry Jesus opposes all forms of evil, by healing the sick (Luke 4:38–41), challenging injustice (Luke 19:1–10) and confronting institutionalised religious corruption (Luke 19:45–48). He offered all those he met the prospect of receiving God’s forgiveness and acceptance on the basis of repentance from their sin and trust in God’s salvation. It is on this basis Jesus proclaims the ‘other criminal’ will be received in ‘paradise’ (Luke 23:40–43). Jesus’ prayer indicates the centrality of this message of God’s forgiveness to his mission, while also revealing the crucifixion as the means by which that forgiveness is received (Luke 24:46).