Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do
On one occasion I spoke with an atheist who made a repeated claim: “Jesus was a hypocrite.” No matter how many times I asked him for evidence, he couldn’t point to any. Plenty in me. Plenty in himself. Innumerable instances in Christian history. But none in Christ Himself.
That’s quite astonishing really. Hypocrisy is almost the defining characteristic of humanity. We cannot bear to be seen for the unrighteous fools we are and so we wear masks, we hide, we act and distract. And our speech is the primary way we do it. The magician, Derren Brown says he performs his tricks through a mixture of “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship.” That’s what we do with words to try and “pull off” our own performances.
We say one thing but mean/think/do another. Everyone’s a hypocrite. Except Jesus.
But that should shock us more than it does. You see no-one had more scope for hypocrisy than Jesus. Because no-one preached the kind of life that Jesus preached. Let’s just take five statements from the sermon on the mount:
Such talk opens Him up to the closest scrutiny. He has set the bar so high, even to the point of saying “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
If my opponents were baying for my blood I can imagine a paralysing fear over the scandals they may dig up. But think of the claims which Christ’s enemies could hold Him to. The merest flaw would open Him instantly to the charge of hypocrisy. Instead, what do we see? Perfect integrity. Not even His harshest critics could make their charges stick. Here is the one Man in whom life and lip speak the same language.
Perhaps the clearest example of this is in the hour of His death. Christ maintains His integrity even in the furnace of intense suffering:
“And there were also two other, malefactors, led with him to be put to death. And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left. Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:32-34)
It’s the first of His ‘last words’. And it’s a word of forgiveness. When I bump my head my first thought is of vengeance. When Christ was pierced, He bled mercy. Iron nails are driven through His hands and feet, His body hoisted onto the upright, His bones out of joint, struggling for breath and He prays “Father, forgive.” As He bore the curse of God, Christ cries for our mercy.
And so the Man who makes the highest demand – “Love your enemies” – obeys it to its darkest depths. He is as good as His word. But His word is not a judgement upon us hypocrites. It’s not even a judgement upon Christ-killers! This is what’s so astonishing about the righteousness of Christ. It does not make Him less sympathetic to sinners but more.
This is why He hangs on the cross. His death is not for the good. It’s for the very people who cause it. And His prayer is answered the next time this crowd gathered publicly – at the feast of Pentecost. Two months later, Peter proclaimed to the Christ-killers the developments that had occurred since Passover:
“God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ. Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost… they gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2:36-41)
It is an incredible answer to Christ’s prayer, an incredible response by God to the murder of His Son. He forgives them the killing of His Son and pledges them the gift of His Spirit. What more can God offer?
On the day of Pentecost, Christ-killers came to know the Fatherly love which Jesus called on even in the hell of Calvary. The Father also proves His integrity in fulfilling His gracious word.
The word of Father and Son to hypocrites is not a word of judgement. As the cross proves, at our very worst He offers His very best. If we come to the cross for mercy we too will know Christ’s word on our behalf: “Father, forgive.” And He will. He’s as good as His word.
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