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).”