“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” –Luke 23:34
Some Christians among us have spent years wondering to whom Jesus was offering forgiveness in that situation. Was it being offered to Pilate, the chief priests and scribes, or Herod, who all played a role in Jesus’ sentencing? Perhaps Jesus was forgiving the crowds who shouted, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Maybe it was the criminals who were sentenced to death alongside Jesus, or the women who followed along who were crying out. Perhaps it was the soldiers who nailed Jesus to the cross and mocked him. I’m sure all of us have ideas about who was most in need of forgiveness.
But I wonder if asking the question of who needs forgiveness is the wrong posture. There are many in our present day who have done things that seem necessary for forgiveness. It seems to me that we as Christians, and we as faith leaders, like to live with the false confidence that we are in the right, and those others are in the wrong. We do this in many spaces – whether political, religious, economic or even in our families – when we consider ourselves righteous, and look down our noses at those with whom we disagree.
I’m convinced there are moments in our world that demonstrate how life isn’t black and white. This week I remembered again a story from one of my seminary professors. He recounted a prayer service he attended with a congregation that was close to the U.S.-Mexico border. During sharing time that day one person stood up and asked the pastor for prayer for a relative who worked as a border patrol agent, desiring that this person be kept safe and able to perform their duties during an upcoming intensive stretch of work. A little while later another person got up to ask for prayer for a relative who was struggling to make ends meet in Mexico, desiring that they be kept safe and able to cross the border in an upcoming attempt at finding a new life in the United States.
How do you honor and pray for conflicting prayer requests? How do we ask God for comfort and provision in our divided world?
In the wake of our most recent presidential election season, I have been questioning my identity. Regardless of political affiliation, many Christians have claimed that the way they voted made them righteous. Too many of us have reorganized around who is a righteous Christian and who is in need of forgiveness, using our political leanings as fuel to alienate each other and further divide our society.
This posture assumes that each of us, like the crucified Jesus, are capable of discerning who is most worthy or most in need of prayer or forgiveness. This posture elevates us to a God-like level where our righteousness allows us to get to decide and removes us from the possibility that perhaps we too are in need of forgiveness.
I’m trying to remind myself that Christ’s prayer – “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” – should apply to all of us. It should apply to those of us who are absolutely certain we’ve done no wrong. It should apply to those of us who know we’ve come up short. It should apply to us if we have at times behaved like the crowd chanting, “Crucify him!”, and it should apply to us if we find ourselves calling out, asking to be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom.
May our prayer continue to be, “Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.”
Ben Wideman is campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State University, State College, Pennsylvania.