During Holy Week we focus on the death of Jesus in anticipation of joyfully celebrating his resurrection. It’s appropriate, for when we see the horror, politics, mistaken religious protection and gross injustice of Jesus’s crucifixion, we are more grateful and worshipful on Easter Sunday.
This Holy Week, I’m thinking about Jesus’s astonishing prayer as Roman soldiers were crucifying him, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) Jesus was undoubtedly in physical agony, but he was thinking about the spiritual wellbeing of those who were inflicting pain. He was looking up, over all of history, at the long term impact of his action while the individual hammering was looking down at nails.
Jesus knew he was dying for the sins of the world and that those who crucified him were sinners, just like the rest of us, as were the Jewish leaders who had pushed him to the cross. Jesus understood that this was the plan, that God was in control, and that the Romans and the Jews were playing their parts. Therefore, Jesus prayed that they would be forgiven, for they had no idea what they were doing.
When we are dealing with disagreement, experiencing anger, or have been deeply hurt, can we look up and trust God enough to pray for the spiritual wellbeing of the people who hurt us? It’s a tough question to consider.
To the Roman soldiers, it was just another crucifixion, another day at the office. They would perhaps have heard about Jesus, but most of them probably had little to no knowledge of who he was or what he had been doing and were perhaps puzzled by the sign above Jesus that read, “Jesus, King of the Jews.” They had not had access to Hebrew Scriptures, and unless they had contact with Jesus, which was certainly possible, they would have had no context in which to place Jesus.
Jesus, on the other hand, knew exactly who the soldiers were and he understood their limited perspective. They were not Jewish and were influenced by a Roman culture that worshipped multiple gods with Caesar on top. Unless God had revealed Jesus’s identity to them, they simply had no knowledge of what they were doing.
The Jewish chief priests, Pharisees, and scribes should have known better, for they knew and had memorized Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus taught that he was the fulfillment of the law, was living as the Scriptures had prophesied, and did miracles to prove it, but the Jewish leaders couldn’t see the truth. Their vision was obscured by their power and status and/or they had been blinded by God.
He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts,
so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them. Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him. John 12:40-41
Jesus’s crucifixion was the climax of human history and the merciful act that Jewish history had been leading up to for centuries. Jesus is God, he was incarnate on this earth, and he is now reigning forever. He is outside of time and he sees it all, so it’s admittedly ridiculous to compare God’s perspective to that of those who were pounding nails into his hands, but we can follow his example.
Over the last year, we’ve been reminded that we have varied perspectives based on our experiences, race, education, family, and many other influences. People of color look at life in the United States very differently than do white people. It would be wise to imagine what it is like to live in the skin of the other. When confrontations between races occur, what if both sides prayed for God to forgive the other because they don’t understand what they are doing? Prayer and understanding is an effective way to begin reconciliation.
The other day, I drove by a woman shouting into a microphone next to several men waving American flags. She looked angry. I wonder how political polarization would change if each side prayed for the Lord to forgive the other for their unwillingness to consider an alternate perspective. When we are looking down at our own lives and opinions we do not see the entire picture, and looking up to offer a prayer like Jesus did is an excellent way to open up our thinking.
Sometimes people throw words or actions at us that cannot be explained by lack of imagination or limited understanding. It is simply evil. Jesus also had something to say about that: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Matthew 5:43-45
It is challenging to be confronted with the love of Jesus, and Holy Week is the climactic event that demonstrates God’s extravagant love for us. Jesus died a cruel death and prayed for those who were executing him. That’s the love of God. That’s how much he loves you.
It is my goal, as it is every Christian’s, to be transformed more and more into the image of Christ, and God will definitely have to do some transformation in us before we can love and pray for our enemies like Jesus did. Fortunately, God does the transforming. We are incapable of changing our hearts, but God isn’t.
My prayer this week is that God would transform his followers to be quick to pray for those with whom we disagree or who have hurt us. Transformation doesn’t usually happen overnight, but I pray that our gracious God would slowly but surely create in us hearts more like that of Jesus.
Let’s look up to God, trusting him, rather than limiting our perspective to our little lives.