“Friends applaud. The comedy is finished.” Those were the last words of Ludwig von Beethoven before he died. We attach a lot of significance to the last words of famous people for some reason. Maybe it’s because we believe that when people know they are approaching death, a certain wisdom sets in. When you look at collections of the last words of people, sometimes this holds true, but often the words of people about to die are mundane and un-noteworthy.
When Jesus was executed on the cross, He had no doubt that He was dying. We have a record of Him speaking seven times from the cross, each time spoke directly to an important issue. His words from the cross brought scorn and mocking at times, but He continued to speak grace and forgiveness from the cross. It was in the midst of being mocked by those crucifying Him that Jesus uttered the words that should be foundational to the belief and practice of every Christian. “Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’” (Luke 23:34a)
When Jesus was crucified there were three groups that were involved. The most obvious group was the Romans. The Jews could not put anyone to death legally, they had to go through the Roman government. The Romans, led by their representative Pontius Pilate, didn’t know all the particulars of the life of Jesus. They knew that not acceding to the wishes of the Jewish leaders meant that there would be lots of trouble during the Passover. They didn’t want that. The Jewish leaders were the second group. They saw in Jesus a revolutionary. He was stirring up the populace. They were losing their power and becoming a laughingstock in the eyes of the people. Ultimately though, they were afraid of the Romans. They knew that if this adulation of Jesus continued, someone would start a revolution and Rome would destroy Jerusalem. Crucifying Jesus would give them peace, they thought. They got less than forty years of peace. Finally, the crowd. Perhaps they had no idea what they were saying. Someone told them to help the religious leaders crucify a criminal. Perhaps they turned on Jesus when He didn’t become the conquering hero they expected. In any case, they turned the tides when Pilate was trying to release Jesus. Their mob screams and shouts led to the crucifixion of Jesus.
These are the people who didn’t know what they were doing. And it’s easy for we who have 2000 years of history to look down on them for their ignorance. I wonder, though, where I would have been on that day. Would I have been one of the crowd, swept along by the noise and excitement? Would I have been one of the religious leaders seeking to protect my position? Would I have gone about doing my job like a good Roman and pound the nails in the cross? When Jesus spoke those words, I think He included me in them. I didn’t know what I was doing until I finally turned to Jesus as Lord and Savior. I think He meant those words for all people down through the ages who continue in their sin, oblivious to the call of God on their lives. Each person we meet is loved by God and He seeks a relationship with them through Jesus Christ. This relationship is open to all who seek it – even as the dying thief gained God’s mercy by asking for it at the end. When we face the troubles of this life caused by people who don’t know Jesus we have one acceptable reaction: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Lord God, how easy it is to want to lash out at people who would persecute us or attack us for following You. Remind me of Your grace to me when I sought to live without Your forgiveness. Help me to forgive others and let that forgiving attitude draw others to You.