Luke 23:33-34: Father, Forgive Them, For They Don’t Know What They are Doing

Father Forgive Them (610x351)Epitaphs: carved into stone, whittled in wood, burnished into bronze. They’re a message for someone to read, long after the bodies below them are dust and ash, and the memories are faded and no longer shine. Gravestones may read: Loving Mother and Faithful Wife; He Gave His Life Defending His Country; Beloved Daughter.


In prose and poetry, epitaphs seek to reveal the life and love, the passion and purpose, of the person beneath. Not so with Jesus—He had no epitaph. Put into a borrowed tomb, He had no chiseled words on a tombstone. If there had been, what would they be? Would they read, Beloved Son, Faithful Friend, Hardworking Carpenter, Rabbi, Healer? Or, would it be something more sinister, like Enemy of the State?

Jesus had no epitaph. But during the last cross-borne hours of His life, He did map out His way of suffering through seven last words. He spoke seven, final phrases, recorded in Holy Writ, becoming tiny touchstones on His way of sorrows.

This Lenten season, we gather to make sense of His suffering. We consider His death, which revealed the travesty of Roman justice. We look into our complicated lives, and our Holy-Spirited union with Christ, using His last words as our guide.

Jesus died alone, in circumstances beyond our full accounting. But those words do provide us with tiny windows, glimpses of His final thoughts. Despite the atrocities and horror of His crucifixion, the first word of His mouth was a prayer—a prayer to His Heavenly Father. “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

For whom does Jesus ask forgiveness? Who are those who “don’t know what they are doing”? How many were there, and why didn’t they know what they were doing? The soldiers knew: They did the deed and wielded the whip. They pounded the nails and thrust the spear. They were doing but a day’s work for a Roman soldier in a foreign land. Of course, the soldiers knew what they were doing.

“They don’t know what they are doing.” But Pontius Pilate knew. He declared: “This man has done nothing to deserve death” (Luke 23:15). But it was easier to crucify then acquit. So, Pilate washes his hands and sends Him to Herod. He makes others take the blame: “Let his blood be on us, and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25). Pontius Pilate, ever wringing his hands, forever soiled. Of course, he knew what he was doing.

“They don’t know what they are doing.” But Herod knew. During Jesus’ trial, Herod found nothing wrong with Him and sent Him back to Pilate (Luke 23:15). He ducked the issue, not making a ruling. And then Herod tried to hide his indecision, finding some way to put the blame on someone else. Oh, Herod knew what he was doing.

“They don’t know what they are doing.” But the Jewish, religious leaders knew. They were the fragile, frightened establishment, who could not endure the presence of God among them. So, they stirred up the crowds, conniving and colluding to make sure the Romans would crucify the Christ. They plotted in secret: “It’s to your advantage that one man dies for the people than for the whole nation to perish” (John 11:50). Oh, those religious leaders knew what they were doing.

“They don’t know what they are doing.” But Simon Peter knew when he denied His Lord. Jesus even warned him: “On this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times” (Matthew 26:34). Later, when confronted, Peter feared for his life and denounced Jesus, trying to save his hide. Even Peter knew what he was doing.

“They don’t know what they are doing.” Judas knew when he turned against His Lord for a payoff. He conspired: “What will you give me if I betray Jesus to you?” (Matthew 26:15). He planned his betrayal well. He contrived the kiss in Gethsemane, all to “cover up” what he was doing, so what was betrayal looked like compassion. Judas well knew what he was doing.

“They don’t know what they are doing.” Even the criminals dying next to Christ knew, for one criminal set the other straight. “Our punishment is fair because we’re getting what we deserve” (Luke 23:41). At last, someone comes clean and stops trying to cover up what he did, no longer straining to pass the blame to someone else.

“They don’t know what they are doing.” And here we are. We’ve also suffered the results of our misdeeds—and when we did, we knew what we were doing. And, then, after we did the deed, we try to justify it, seeking some way to make what is wrong somehow seem right—or not as bad.

Our actions are as old as Adam and Eve, whom the Lord sought in the garden of their sin. After they had sinned, the Father called them out: “What did you do?” (Genesis 3:13). And they tried to cover up their deed, hiding it from the all-seeing God. They patched together fig leaves and made excuses.

Even while Adam and Eve were covering up—making their lives tolerable, safe, and bearable—they were driving the loving, living God away from themselves. They even tried to hide from Him. As Adam’s fallen voice betrayed: “I heard You in the garden, and I was afraid, so I hid” (Genesis 3:10).

If it’s not that, then it’s denial, as Peter cried out: “I don’t know the man!” (Matthew 26:72). When put in a bind, we send God away, as Pilate did. “I will have Him whipped and then release Him” (Luke 23:22). And when trying to keep we want, we hang Him up to die, as the Jewish leaders did. “It’s to [our] advantage that one man dies for the people than for [everything else] to perish” (John 11:50).

And, like them—from Adam and Eve to Herod and Pilate—we hide from, send away, and crucify the King of Love when we cover up our guilt. What are we doing? It’s our inborn, inherited habit. But it’s more than that, for we’ve practiced it, honing it to near perfection. We even try to cover up what we’ve done, so used to doing that. Much of the time, we don’t even realize we’re doing that!

We don’t know what we are doing. And yet, Jesus is still bent on our forgiveness: “Father, forgive them.” Now, Jesus, He knew what He was doing! Even as the blows of the hammer drove the nails through His flesh into the wood, Jesus was heaven-bent on our forgiveness.

Who would be so set to forgive? He is the Son of Man, humanity restored to the image of God. This man, on the cross, reflects God’s perfect, forgiving love to the world. He is the perfect Forgiver, the Absolver above all others, who came to forgive us of our sins, even the sins committed against Him.

Jesus was dying to forgive the sins we know and confess. But Jesus also died for the sin that even seeks to have less to confess, that tries to justify itself by covering up and making excuses. In His first word from the Cross, Jesus is stripping us bare to stand naked before the judgment seat of God. As in the Garden of Eden so long ago, the Lord sees through our deception and cover-up.

In the Hebrew language of God’s first Covenant, one word for “garment,” something to cover what someone shouldn’t see, is the word that also means “atonement.” And so, the Old-Covenant Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, was the “day of covering,” the day of God covering His people’s sins.

Beneath the cross, Roman soldiers divided Jesus’ garments. In that little detail, we see a picture of why we gather here as God’s people in this season of the Atonement. But we gather, not because of what only takes place in our sinfulness, but because of what Jesus does for us in His righteousness. He divides His garment, His covering, and then covers our sins, atones for them, with His righteousness.

Jesus’ best garment was a seamless robe, woven without a flaw. In that wine-colored cloth, we find the perfect robe of righteousness for which He died to cover us. We find His full forgiveness for which He prayed, even as He gave His life to make it so.

“Father, forgive them.” Jesus’ prayer to the Father is also for you. He pleads your case before the throne of grace, showing His crucifixion wounds. This forgiveness costs. Not counting your sins isn’t God being polite, discounting your wrongdoings. It takes more, more than even a chunk of Christ’s flesh; it will take His life.

“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Our not knowing isn’t only because we’re used to rationalizing our sin that we barely notice them. It’s more: we also don’t know the full impact, the depth of damage we cause when we sin.

That’s also what Jesus means when He says that we don’t know we are doing. We have little idea of the spiritual damage we do to others—and ourselves! We have only the tiniest inkling, at best. Thank God that He doesn’t limit His forgiveness only to the sins that we know! “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

Jesus’ word of forgiveness is a sweet, divine melody played against our sinful dissonance. It’s His new song sung against the devil’s lie and the old song of our sin. It sings in your ear in the Absolution at the start of the service. It soothes your conscience when a brother or sister in Christ speaks Christ’s forgiveness to you.

Jesus’ word on the cross is His pardoning prayer that brings peace with God, making you whole again, restoring you with God. His forgiveness touches you with mystery, far beyond your knowing. What an abyss of wrong had once separated, Jesus has restored in His deed of perfect love. Indeed, God and man ARE reconciled. “Father, forgive them.” Such a joy, for it is true—even for you and me! Amen.