"Father, Forgive Them..."

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 16 November 1988, the Holy Father said that, in this first word from the Cross, we see “the image and principle of that forgiveness that Jesus wishes to convey to all humanity through his sacrifice.”

All that Jesus taught and did during his earthly life reached the peak of truth and holiness on the cross. The words which Jesus then uttered are his supreme and definitive message and, at the same time, the confirmation of a holy life which ended with the total gift of himself, in obedience to the Father, for the salvation of the world. Those words, heard by his mother and by the disciples present on Calvary, were consigned to the first Christian communities and to all future generations, so that they might illumine the meaning of Jesus' redemptive work and inspire his followers during their life and at the moment of death. Let us also meditate on those words, as countless Christians have done in all ages.

The first thing we discover on reading them is that they contain a message of pardon. "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Lk 23:43). According to Luke's account this was the first word uttered by Jesus on the cross. We ask ourselves right away: was not this the word we needed to hear in our regard?

But in that situation, after what had taken place, in the presence of those people who had asked for his condemnation and had treated him with such ferocity, who would have thought that Jesus would have said that? And yet the Gospel gives us this certainty. From the height of the cross there sounded forth the word, "forgive"!

Let us take up the fundamental aspects of that message of forgiveness. Jesus not only forgave, but he asked the Father's forgiveness for those who had put him to death, and therefore for us also. It is the sign of the total sincerity of Christ's forgiveness and of the love that derives from it. It is a new fact of history, even in that of the covenant. In the Old Testament we read so many texts of the psalmists who had asked for the vengeance or punishment of the Lord on their enemies. These texts are repeated in Christian prayer, even in liturgical prayer, but not without our feeling the need of interpreting them and bringing them into line with the teaching and example of Jesus, who loved even his enemies. The same can be said of certain expressions of the prophet Jeremiah (cf. 11:20; 20:12; 15:15) and of the Jewish martyrs in the Book of the Maccabees (cf. 2 Mac 7:9, 14, 17, 19). Jesus confirmed this position in the sight of God and spoke words that are quite different. He had reminded those who had rebuked him for associating with sinners, that already in the Old Testament, according to the inspired word, God "desires mercy" (cf. Mt 9:13).

It is also to be noted that Jesus forgave immediately, even though the hostility of his enemies continued to manifest itself. Forgiveness is his only response to their hostility. Moreover, his forgiveness was addressed to all those who, humanly speaking, were responsible for his death. This included not merely the soldiers who were carrying out the execution, but all those, near or distant, manifest or hidden, who had played a part in the process that led to his condemnation and crucifixion. For all of them he asked forgiveness. He so defended them before the Father that the Apostle John, after enjoining on Christians that they should not sin, can add: "But if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also the sins of the whole world" (1 Jn 2:1-2). The same line is followed also by the Apostle Peter who, in his discourse to the people of Jerusalem, extends to all the excuse of "ignorance" (cf. Acts 3:17; cf. Lk 23, 34) and the offer of forgiveness (cf. Acts 3:19). It is consoling for all of us to know that, according to the Letter to the Hebrews, Christ crucified, the eternal priest, remains for all time the one who makes intercession for sinners who draw near to God through him (cf. Heb 7:25).

He is the intercessor and also the advocate, the "Paraclete" (cf. 1 Jn 2:1) who, on the cross, instead of accusing his crucifiers of their guilt, mitigated it by saying that they know not what they do. His judgment is marked by indulgence. But it also conforms with the real truth that only he can see in those enemies of his and in all sinners, namely, that many may be less guilty than what may appear or what one may think, and therefore Jesus taught us "not to judge" (cf. Mt 7:11). Now, on Calvary, he became the intercessor and advocate of sinners before the Father.

This forgiveness from the cross is the image and principle of that forgiveness that Jesus wishes to convey to all humanity through his sacrifice. To merit this forgiveness and, in the concrete, the grace that purifies and confers divine life, Jesus made the heroic offering of himself for all humanity. All men, each in the individuality of his own personal "I," of his good and evil, are therefore potentially and, indeed, one could say, intentionally included in Jesus' prayer to the Father, "Forgive them." That request for clemency and for heavenly understanding is certainly valid also for us, "because they know not what they do." Perhaps no sinner completely escapes that ignorance and is therefore beyond the range of that intercession for forgiveness which issues from the most tender heart of Christ dying on the cross. However, this should not impel anyone to impose on the richness of God's goodness, tolerance and patience, to the point of not recognizing that this goodness invites him to conversion (cf. Rom 2:4). Because of the hardness of his impenitent heart he would heap anger on his head against the day of wrath and of the revelation of God's just judgment (cf. Rom 2:5). And yet even for him the dying Christ asked the Father's forgiveness, even though a miracle were necessary for his conversion.

Already in the early Christian communities, the message of forgiveness was received and followed by the first martyrs for the faith, who repeated almost literally Jesus' prayer to the Father. We find this in the case of the protomartyr Stephen who, at the moment of his death—as recounted by the Acts of the Apostles—asked, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 7:10). According to Eusebius of Caesarea, St. James also repeated the words of Jesus as a request for forgiveness during his martyrdom (Eusebius, Historia Eccles. II, 23, 16). In any event, this was an application of the Master's teaching which recommended, "Pray for your persecutors" (Mt 5:44). Jesus joined example to teaching in the supreme moment of his life and his first followers did likewise in forgiving and in asking God to forgive their persecutors.

However, they also bore in mind another concrete fact that took place on Calvary and which constituted an integral part of the message of the cross as a message of forgiveness. Jesus said to the criminal crucified with him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Lk 23:43). It is a striking fact which reveals in action all the dimensions of the work of salvation which finds expression in forgiveness. That criminal had acknowledged his guilt, rebuking his accomplice and companion in punishment who mocked Jesus, "We are condemned justly, for we are receiving the due reward for our deeds." He had asked Jesus to remember him when he came into the kingdom proclaimed by him: "Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power" (Lk 23:42). He regarded Jesus' condemnation as unjust: "This man has done nothing wrong." He did not join in the railing of his fellow criminal ("Save yourself and us!", Lk 23:39), and of the others who, like the rulers, said, "He saved others: let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his chosen one!" (Lk 23:35). He did not join in the mockery of the soldiers: "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself!" (Lk 23:37).

The criminal, therefore, by asking Jesus to remember him, professed his faith in the Redeemer. At the moment of his death, he not only accepted death as the just penalty for the evil he had done, but he turned to Jesus to tell him that he placed all his hope in him.

This is the most obvious explanation of that episode narrated by Luke, in which the psychological element, the criminal's change of attitude—while having as its immediate cause the impression received from the example of the innocent Jesus who suffered and died and at the same time forgave—has, however, its real mysterious root in the grace of the Redeemer, who converted this man and granted him divine forgiveness. Jesus' response was immediate. To the penitent and converted criminal, Jesus promised paradise in his company on that very day. It was a case of complete forgiveness. He who had committed crimes and robberies—and therefore sins—became a saint in the final moment of his life.

One could say that in this text of Luke we have the first canonization in history, performed by Jesus in favor of a criminal who turned to him in that dramatic moment. This shows that people can obtain, through Christ's cross, forgiveness of all their offenses, even of an entire evil life, if they surrender to the grace of the Redeemer who converts and saves them.

Jesus' words to the repentant criminal contain also the promise of perfect happiness: "Today you will be with me in paradise." The sacrifice of redemption obtains eternal beatitude for humanity. It is a gift of salvation certainly proportionate to the value of the sacrifice, notwithstanding the lack of proportion that seems to exist between the criminal's simple request and the greatness of the reward. This disproportion is overcome by Christ's sacrifice which, through the infinite value of his life and death, merited the happiness of heaven.

The episode narrated by Luke reminds us that paradise is offered to all humanity and to each and every human being who, like the penitent criminal, yields to grace and places all his hope in Christ. A moment of real conversion, a "moment of grace," which we can say with St. Thomas, "is worth more than the whole universe" (Summa Theol., I-II, q. 113, a. 9, ad 2), can square the accounts of a whole life. It can bring about in anyone what Jesus promised to his companion in torment: "This day you will be with me in paradise."