Why Would Jesus say “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)? In all the years I’ve been reading the Bible I’ve never really thought about this question, and when my friend Amy asked it, I was just floored. For some background, at this point Jesus is hanging on a cross and is ridiculed by bystanders, guards, and most embarrassingly one of the criminals; to all of this Jesus responds by praying the Father to forgive the sin associated with his crucifixion. Think about, Christians claim that Jesus is God incarnate, equal with the Father in every way. Jesus on more than one occasion pronounced forgiveness of a person’s sins (see Mark 2:5, Luke 7:48). How could Jesus have the power to forgive the sins of those he healed and yet on this occasion he asks the Father? Like everything Jesus did during his earthly ministry there are a number of reasons and I probably don’t understand the mall. Yet, I think I have a few explanations which might help. [For those who care I know there is a manuscript discrepancy here but given the nature of the question I’m going to brush it aside for now]
First, we must look at the portrait of Jesus throughout Luke’s narrative; in this Gospel Jesus is always in control of the situation. Even in execution Jesus is willingly giving himself up as part of the plan, the officials do not have authority over him, he goes willingly. Luke wants us to see that even in the most horrendous circumstances of his life,even as he was dying an extremely excoriating death, Jesus was thinking of others and working toward their salvation. Jesus was in control and was aware of what those around him needed the most. Jesus must ask for forgiveness because that is what humanity needed at the moment; humanity needed a person in control and willing to intercede for us. But that doesn’t really get at the problem, why does Jesus not simply say, “you all do not know what you are doing, but still you are forgiven.”?
It can also be argued that Jesus was showing us an example. A number of people have noticed the connections between Luke 23:34 and Stephen’s words in Acts 7:60 as he was dying. Stephen’s words in Acts are clearly modeled on the example which Jesus provided, and that is one dimension of the incarnation, to provide us with an example of what humanity is supposed to look like. Jesus even tells us that sometimes he speaks in prayer for our benefit, “Then Jesus looked up and said,“Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” (John 11:41-42). But I do not think this is the whole reason Jesus spoke these words from the cross. Yes, they serve as a powerful example for Christians not to resort to violence and condemnation even when one is brutalized on the cross, but I think there is more.
Some have argued that this phrase speaks through all time and space, and thus Jesus was asking forgiveness for all humanity. Jesus spoke these words so that we would all know that forgiveness has been offered. Jesus spoke these words trusting they would be memorable enough to be passed down and through them all would come to understand that God has heard the cry for forgiveness for all ages. Similar to the rationale above, here we see Jesus making a direct petition on our behalf, so we can know we have an intercessor with the Father.
But if I was to pick simply one reason why Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of others on the cross rather than simply pronouncing forgiveness it is because he had to ask in this situation. We do not understand the relationship of the persons who make up the Trinity, but Jesus while here was a person, a human just like us. Repeatedly Jesus tells us to forgive and to ask for forgiveness, but he also says that part of being human is to, “Pray for those who abuse you,” (Luke 6:27-28). How can Jesus claim to be human if he does not follow this command? We do not understand the relationships of the persons who make up the Trinity. Consequently, we do not understand how the Father and Jesus communicate, either now or when Jesus was on earth. But Jesus was human, and humanity must communicate to God through prayer, and at points these prayers must be offers of forgiveness to others (Matthew 6:12). To live as a human is to be tempted to be selfish and withhold forgiveness to those who have wronged us. Jesus lived in this temptation and had to overcome it; Jesus must forgive,and he must intercede on behalf of those who have wronged him. This is a small piece of “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Had Jesus failed to pray for those abusing him on the cross he would have failed to maintain his own command, he would have failed to love his neighbor, and his role would be called into question. Why does Jesus pray for those who have crucified him, rather than simply pronouncing forgiveness? Because to do anything less would be to be less than fully human, now go and do likewise.