Unforgiving Jesus on the Cross

In the midst of his crucifixion, Jesus looks down and forgives his torturers, his crucifiers, his executioners.

Jesus, in the midst of the unimaginable and intolerable injustice, musters the courage to forgive the unforgivable.

It is a moment, at least according to how traditional Christianity teaches it, of overwhelming mercy and unfathomable forgiveness.

Except, that’s not exactly how it happens, is it?

Jesus, in fact, doesn’t forgive his captors.

He doesn’t forgive his executioners.

He doesn’t forgive his killers.

He can’t, it seems.

So, instead, he asks God to forgive them.

Perhaps he doesn’t have the capacity in that all-too-human moment. Maybe the sorrow and the pain have wrenched from him his power to forgive his enemies. Perhaps he can’t bring himself to personally forgive the atrocity of his execution.

Whatever the reason, the man who so brazenly and boldly proclaimed other people’s sins forgiven throughout his public ministry cannot offer the same forgiveness to his executioners. The man who angered religious authorities by extending forgiveness to people outside of the Temple system of forgiveness cannot do the same on the cross.

It is a remarkable human moment in the gospels, one that shows mercy as great as the world has known and, at the same time, the limits of that mercy.

That Jesus can even manage to ask God to forgive them is stunning in its compassion and understanding.

But that Jesus cannot manage to forgive them on his own is just as stunning as it reveals the conflicted beauty of Jesus’ humanity and his divine calling to offer love.

Here is a man who said we would be forgiven by God only as much as we forgive others. Here is a man who commanded his followers to forgive their enemies, those that would cause them harm, those that would kill them.

Those that would crucify them.

And yet, there is a limit. On the cross. With the nails. Thorns plunged into a skull. Abused. Abased. Flogged. Dying. Murdered.

There is forgiveness requested in that moment, but not offered. There is forgiveness on the cross, but it is not from Jesus.

It is from God.

There is a lesson here for a religion such as ours that, on its face, requires our blanket forgiveness to all who wrong us. There is a hard, but truthful lesson, that forgiveness in the face of such terrible abuse isn’t proffered with ease, while the nails still dig into the soul, in the moment of the pain. We can pray that God will forgive those who bring about our destruction, those who torture, abuse and execute. Indeed, our faith requires that.

But there are some evils and some wrongs for which our personal forgiveness does not come so easily. There are limits to our humanity’s ability to forgive. And we should not feel guilty for our inability to offer personal forgiveness while our wounds still bleed, for that would essentially drive the nails deeper and deform a faith of forgiveness and love into a faith that eviscerates victims by compelling them to kiss their captors.

Remember, it was Judas that kissed Jesus, not the other way around.

Remember, it was Jesus who could not manage to offer his personal, human forgiveness to his executioners.

“Father forgive them” is not the same as “I forgive them.”

There are limits to our ability to forgive, and that is the compelling, conflicted, aching and tragic beauty of Jesus words on the cross. That he wants his executioners forgiven even when he cannot forgive them himself, when he cannot even directly address them himself.

Sometimes this is the most we can offer as humans.

“Father forgive them (because I cannot), for they know not what they do (and I know all too well).”

 

About David R. Henson

David Henson received his Master of Arts from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalists. He ordained in the Episcopal Church as a priest. He is a father of two young sons and the husband of a medical school student.

  • Guitarkimmy

    Thank you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Todd-Jenkins/627874957 Todd Jenkins

    “…one that shows mercy as great as than the world has known…”

    ??

    • http://www.facebook.com/unorthodoxologist David Henson

      Great catch! This is why I always say I love editors. Fixed it in the post. Thanks again.

  • Jake

    Not buying it. Nice twist and forceful semantics, but Jesus’ words reflect His own personal forgiveness, while also asking His Father to also Forgive them. It was a public request that reflected His own personal convictions; not to mention the fact that, “I and the Father are One”, John 10:30.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/V6TYXDEQO2DBA5L4L46PNX3GDM Diana Avery

      Yeah, this was my thought too.

    • Baronsabato

      I personally don’t think it makes sense to quote a completely different gospel with a completely different theology of Jesus and Jesus’ nature in response to this post. The Gospel of Luke poses one version of who Jesus was, and the Gospel of John couldn’t have a more different “take”. It’s nice of you to offer your interpretation, but I think David’s strikes at the heart of the incarnation, of what it meant for Christ to be fully human.

      • http://www.facebook.com/unorthodoxologist David Henson

        It is interesting that we tend to resist the mental and emotional suffering of Christ but embrace the physical suffering so easily. Says a great deal about our attitudes toward mental health.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matt-Weiler/41802467 Matt Weiler

    Hmmm, David. Alan story really helped me with this one with an interpretation of Mark 12:1-12. The pinnacle question of the text is “Was it the father’s will that the son die?” The answer is no and if this is a parable about Jesus then likewise, it was not the will of the father for the son to die. God’s will was for Jesus to love and the cross was and is inevitable when this kind of love meets sin. But to say that the cross was inevitable is not to say that it was planned. This understanding has changed my whole understanding of Jesus’ death and its implications. Here’s how I view it now, in story. As you are raising your children you are constantly telling them that your desire for them is to love. No matter the cost, Love. And one day your son comes running home to you and he’s beaten up badly. Someone tried to fight him, and he remembered, “Daddy wants me to love, and that means don’t fight.” When he runs home and you see him all bloodied up you wrap him in your arms and say, “Son I am so proud of you for not fighting and for choosing to love, but I am so sorry that this happened to you.” And you’re angry. You are so angry at the guy who did this to your child. But your son, sensing your anger looks up to you and says, “Daddy, please forgive him. He didn’t know what he was doing.

    • http://www.facebook.com/unorthodoxologist David Henson

      I’m with you here in that I don’t think that it was God’s purpose for Jesus to die and that the kind of love Jesus demonstrated ends in execution. I’m just not sure I buy the Jesus as naive child. In fact, if my child came home beaten up and I happened to be angry and said I was going to talk to his principal, and my child told me not to, to forgive him and excused his behavior (and let’s say for good measure there was sexual abuse or humiliation as well), then I’d suspect some sort of bullying or threat came with the physical punishment. Making him a victim twice.

      And that’s what I’m getting at here with my retelling and how this story’s message has been traditionally used.

      I do find it fascinating and curious, however, that Jesus doesn’t have more agency in forgiving. Maybe that is why he says to pray for those that persecute you and love one’s enemies not necessarily to forgive them. Perhaps there is a difference there we ought to explore?

  • mj

    Better to have a mill stone around your neck…

    This is utter crap.

  • Helen

    Great thoughts for those who have been through the mill and struggle to move on. It takes time for most people to get to the point where the thought of forgiveness can start, and then usually some time before it can actually start to happen.

  • Jbethell

    Perfect sense if you don’t buy into the Trinitarian God-from-God, light-from-light, true-God-from-true-God nonsense, right?

    • http://www.facebook.com/unorthodoxologist David Henson

      Not necessarily. You can square this with Trinitarianism just like you can square Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane being unanswered, with Jesus proclaiming that no one is good but God and Jesus’ cry of Godforsakenness on, and on. I wouldn’t consider the Trinity nonsense, but I would consider it a metaphor to understand the mystery of God (as well as an inferred doctrine rather than an explicit one). The Trinity is poetry, not prose.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1171736513 Ginger Hamilton Caudill

    Wow, how did I miss this column until now? Thank you for this. Your insights always open my eyes and expand my horizons and understanding of our brother Christ.

  • Larry Smith

    Classic eisegesis.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000134651423 Susan Snyder

    I have been really struggling with my faith. How could He set up a world, a system knowing, because he knows all, people will make bad choices and will suffer. This article touched me in the part of me that is angry and lonely. The part of my soul that longs for understanding. I am not sure if this was the intent of your article but I come away with a sense of wonder that Jesus struggled as well. A sense that I am not the only one who questions and struggles.

    • http://www.facebook.com/unorthodoxologist David Henson

      Yes, because I hope we can understand and embrace Jesus’ loneliness, anger and despair during the Passion, etc.

  • ET1

    Blasphemous.

    • Baronsabato

      No, you’re being blasphemous.

      See how easy it is to play this game?

  • Timothy

    Thank you, David! This is a wonderful post about the suffering that Jesus endured, and because of Jesus’ humanness found it hard to forgive and prayed that God the Father may do it. The early Christian heresy, patripassianism, where the Father suffers along with the Son goes along well this this post. Since the God the Father is not suffering with Jesus on the cross, God the Father is able to forgive these unforgivable Roman crucifiers. I hope that we can take from this post that we should ask God to forgive others even if we can’t in our suffering and hurt. Happy Easter Eve.

    • http://www.facebook.com/unorthodoxologist David Henson

      Thanks for your comment Timothy. I had not thought of this in connection to patripassianism. Thanks for that connection!

  • Sue

    Interesting thoughts, as always, David. On the other hand, I like the idea that true forgiveness may take time to be able to offer wholly. For forgiveness to be real, the extent of the pain has to be felt. Jesus is only at the beginning of the process of dying here, so maybe the true forgiveness from him can only happen after the fact.

    On the other hand, I know that it can be more difficult for me to forgive those who hurt people I love, than for me to forgive those who hurt me. Many pastor’s wives have stayed in bitterness after their husbands have moved on, refusing to forgive those who have hurt their husbands.

    I’m also reminded of Psalm 51 where David says, “against you, and you alone have I sinned”as he’s confessing his sin with Bathsheba. Of course, her husband wasn’t around to ask forgiveness of at that time. Still, Jesus’ mastery of the scriptures would have made this passage familiar to him. Likewise the first lines of Psalm 22 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” could have been lifted for the cross.

    I’m also caught by the public nature of Jesus’ comments. Is he trying to say/teach something here? I’ve always felt that Jesus was at his low point in the Garden, but after the angels came to minister to him, that he received grace, as many martyrs do, to follow through with the death that they see. And that he was in control from that point on, as evidenced in his rebuke to Simon, after cutting off the ear of the priest’s servant.

    I guess the bottom line for me is that I think Jesus would have found it easier to forgive those who sinned against him, than those who sinned against other innocents – I think of the phrase, it is better for someone to have a millstone tied around his neck than to cause a little one to sin. In that case, Jesus isn’t offering forgiveness, but judgment.

  • Catherine Alexander

    Except that God the Son and God the Father are One God. They cannot disagree. They cannot have opposing wills. And that 2000 years of Christian tradition has consistently taught that Christ is our model of forgiveness. But wait! After 2012 years, here is a guy who has figured out the REAL truth! How did we miss it all those years?

    This is a perfect example of individual interpretation of the Bible run amok.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000134651423 Susan Snyder

      He said, “Father, if it’s your will, take this cup of suffering away from me. However, not my will but your will must be done.” (Luke 22:42)

      • http://www.facebook.com/unorthodoxologist David Henson

        Yes, that seems to be a pretty strong indication that they had two separate wills. What Jesus did was submit to what he considered God’s will. In other words, kenosis.

  • Joe

    Your assumption is that, by asking His Father to forgive them, Jesus had not or did not or could not forgive them Himself. Jesus was asking His Father to agree with Him. And He knew his Father would. Minutes later he tells the thief who confessed his wrongs that he would be in paradise. Jesus had all authority to forgive and did so.

  • Anonymous

    No. “I and the Father are one.” The sins against Jesus were sins against the Father, and the Father’s forgiveness was Jesus’s – especially since he was taking even the sin of the cross, to the cross.

  • AM Hill

    Something about this post bothered me upon first reading it and it wasnt until I was getting ready for work the other day that it hit me just how off its assertion is based on the Biblical Jesus. He wasn’t asking God to forgive them because he couldn’t (this argument shows that isolating anything in a single verse or passage and creating a doctrine around it is dangerous) rather this is a clear example of Christ’s intercessory petition… an intercession that he continues to this very moment. I would request any scriptural cross reference that supports the thesis of this posting. The sentiment is nice, but it is inaccurate and entirely unbiblical.

    • http://www.facebook.com/unorthodoxologist David Henson

      Not creating a doctrine here, just to be clear. This is an exploration of a disconnect within the text. Jesus forgives sins in the New Testament (or at least pronounces them forgiven, which to the leaders at the time amounted to about the same thing). Jesus does not do so for his executioners (he does however implicitly forgive his fellow crucified by saying they will be together in paradise). We can explain it away theologically by speaking of intercession or of the unity of the wills of God and Jesus, and that’s fine. But it does beg the question, if Jesus can forgive sins (indeed, he grants that power to his disciples then and now), why doesn’t he personally do so? What is the difference between Father forgive and I forgive, for Jesus and in our own lives? Does it diminish Jesus to know that he struggled to forgive, a very human, incarnational struggle? What does it say about our willingness to embrace Jesus physical torture but not his mental suffering? How does that affect the faith’s posture toward mental health issues?

      The Bible, to me, is meant to be explored.

  • Paula

    I’m not particularly religious, but how do you call yourselves Christians and then put words in the mouth of Jesus. Pretty contradictory and hypocritical if you ask me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kathleen.neely Kathleen Elizabeth Neely

    this is why I am a Roman Catholic, and not an Episcopalian, you twist things and it is confusing..

  • fr .Neil

    Jesus not only forgave them
    but brought forgiveness from the Father as well

  • Bell

    “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

    1 Judge not, that ye be not judged.

    2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

    3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

    Matthew 7:1-3

    King James Version (KJV)

    “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also
    forgive you: but if ye forgive men not their trespasses, neither will
    your Father forgive your trespasses.”—Matthew 6:14,15 If you love Jesus you will love one another and forgive yourself and others as God has forgiven you if you accept and follow Jesus’s commandments.

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