The Passion Narratives

The Seven Last Words of Christ

Reflection by Father James Meade

   "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do."

   A Pulitzer Prize winner, Jon Meacham, recently wrote a work of contemporary Protestant-based reflection on the seven last words of Christ from the cross. Since I do not have Father Maginot with whom to argue, I will question some of Meacham's observations, particularly his doubt that Jesus ever said this phrase of asking the Father to forgive the perpetrators of his crucifixion.

   Meacham thinks  it is a lovely idea from St. Luke, admittedly a lovely person, to insist that Gentiles and Jews are both forgiven for not understanding their role in salvation history. There is an odd notion which comes up in early heretical writings, such as The Gospel of Judas from the fourth century A.D., and bothers more people than Meacham. It goes like this, "Since we are saved by Jesus' passion and death on the cross, all of the people who brought it about were players, albeit, unwilling ones, in God's salvation drama. The problem has been easily resolved by Catholic authors over the centuries.

   In St. Augustine's treatise on the Providence of God, he starts with the premise that God does not will, nor does he predestine, anyone to sinful acts. Caiaphas thinks Jesus must die for the good of a temple-building nation. He tries to get - indeed to trick - Jewish groups like the Sanhedrin and a Council of Elders, to condemn Jesus, but that High Priest is not really successful.

   Caiaphas would like to blame Jesus' elimination on the Romans, but he needs to somehow manipulate Pontius Pilate, and that procurator would like to pass the problem off to King Herod. Herod does evil things, but not on this occasion. Herod, rather, acquits Jesus, and Pilate, along especially with his wife, would like to do the same.

   I personally think that had Pilate followed his law and released Jesus, that some Jews would have joined Caiaphas in their regular blasphemy stone-throwing. Possibly coins for an assassin could have been managed. I do not think that Jesus was getting out of Jerusalem alive that day. Nevertheless, there could have been

 some other manner for our redemption other than the one concocted in malice by evil people. 

   Because St. Luke began his Gospel with the insistence that he wanted to produce an accurate account of the events of Jesus' life and teaching, it would work against his prime principle to have Jesus say what the evangelist thought he really ought to have said, but did not.

   Luke writes that he spoke with the original eyewitnesses. People know from Mark's Gospel, that Mary, mother of James and Joses, Mary Magdalene, and other persons were there. If Luke, who was not on Calvary then, was recording sayings of Jesus, he would have thought himself obliged to these people from whom he received his information to report their witness accurately.

   I am happy for Meacham if he does not know any evil, cruel people. In fact, the malicious are all over God's creation. They are cheap with tipping the waitresses over whom they are so demanding. I once watched two high school-aged waitresses use their CPR skills on someone passed out with a heart attack. They kept calling for a patron who was a nurse or a doctor. But, they continued their first aid procedures.

   The patient actually revived a bit, and all of us in the restaurant were in awe.

   However, one man interrupted the two first responding waitresses. They thought he was the help for which they prayed. Instead the man complained that n0 one had taken his order, and that he had appointments.

   Maybe people did not, and could not, know who Jesus was. Maybe people do not know what they do to others because they are too self-obsessed to speculate on how their actions might affect somebody else. However, people who have certain jobs, like being a torturer, a got-you journalist, or the gatekeeper in some processes rather give the impression that they do their jobs with the anticipation of wreaking misery on whoever they could, and they would like to hurt more if they could get away with it.  

   Of course, I am missing the essential if indirect object. "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." To whom? You will quote me a sparse number of occasions where Jesus expresses his exasperation and deep sighs, but I am not ready to concede that Jesus is any more concerned about himself there than he is throughout the main and usual thrust of his other-centered life.

  My view is that Jesus accepted from the beginning of time when the Trinity decided that if there was going to be a creation it was going to need a salvific recreation. And, from long before humanity noticed it, Jesus stands in compassion for his sorrow over everyone of us.

   We do not know what we are doing to ourselves when we depart from God's will to a surreal and hideous re-fashioning of ourselves into sinners. Our acts form our identity, too much of which is contrary to our divine destiny. 

   Right now, we are filled with excuses for our short-comings, and even our most heinous behavior towards others. Many people, no matter how good they are, lead lives in which they imagine that any, if not every, person in their experience is at fault for the wreck of a self-centered world.

   Someday, we well may be forced to look at that with accountability. It give the saint a reason to praise God for all of his merciful work in sometimes limiting and re-drawing circumstances to bring good someday out of our malfeasance.

   Find encouragement and relief from St. Paul's vision of Jesus' passion. In Ephesians 1:15-23, or Colossians 1:15-29, and almost anytime Paul brings up the Body of Jesus on the cross, he immediately speaks of the Mystical Body of Jesus in his Church, filling you, every person, and indeed, all the world in all its matter with divine-powered restoration. 

   The word"forgive," in English, means to give, and give, and give unendingly. It is a good translation of Luke's medicinal notion of healing and restoring. We do not know what we are doing to ourselves without God.

   It is tragic that we are missing what we could be with Jesus.





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