32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals – one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
Jesus is asking his Father in heaven above to forgive all those on earth below for what they are doing to him, and those who hoisted him onto the cross are figuring out who will be able to get his clothes after he’s dead. Of all things, they are casting lots for the clothes of the Christ. Of all places, they are casting lots on Calvary.
Just like many people have done – and just like we can be tempted to do – they in an improper way were benefitting from his misery. It is not a rare thing for people to want to benefit from people’s misery – for people to want what dead people had when they were alive or to take people’s possessions when their way of protecting them has been destroyed. Sometimes we call them looters, people we may see on TV who go through homes and businesses destroyed by tornadoes or by violence and take for themselves whatever they can carry. Or we may call them scavengers, comparable to the vultures who fly above and just wait for a carcass on the road or in the field to start decaying and be ready to be picked, wanting to benefit from that dead animal’s misery.
If these scavenger soldiers hadn’t known Jesus before, they certainly could have learned a lot about him from the words he spoke while on the cross perched on top of the hill called “The Skull,” which in one language is called Golgotha and in another language is called Calvary, both of which words mean “The Skull.” They certainly could have learned a lot about the one hanging on the cross on The Skull from all seven words he spoke that day, as we will seek to learn more about in the weeks ahead, but they most definitely could have benefitted from knowing all that was involved in the word he spoke when he said to his Father in heaven, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
It’s not that people don’t intellectually know what they are doing, but spiritually the majority of people in the world don’t know that by their sins they are responsible for putting to death the Son of God. And that’s why it is vitally important for us who do know what took place there and whom it was taking place against to make sure that we confess how responsible for the misery of Jesus that we are.
It might be that we seek to benefit from Jesus’ misery in a way that could be described as being a scavenger sinner, acting as if Jesus is dead and silent and unable to know what’s going on in our lives – not thinking that Jesus knows the thing we are thinking that is not fitting for a child of God, not caring that Jesus knows the thing we are doing that it is not fitting for a child of God, not comprehending that Jesus knows the thing we are saying that is not fitting for a child of God. And often those sinful thoughts and actions and words are directed toward other people in their misery, right? Or to cause misery… “I am glad that that happened to her” may be our thought. “I will make sure that everyone knows how much better or more deserving than him that I am” may be what we carry out in our actions. “He or she is a person who should not be your friend” may be what we gossip about with our words.
When we fall like that, aren’t we really casting lots on Calvary, just like those soldiers? Aren’t we taking a chance that Jesus can’t hear us, that he doesn’t care what we do, that he’s powerless to do anything about it? Aren’t we trying to basically benefit from his misery by causing misery for others? But who is ultimately going to end up in misery? That is why not just on this somber Ash Wednesday, but on every day, you and I need to plead before our God, “Lord, have mercy on me, a poor, miserable sinner.”
That’s also why it is so amazing that the very first thing Jesus says on the cross is, “Father, forgive them.” There are people benefitting from his misery, while he is graciously forgiving me. It is wonderful to hear Jesus say, Father forgive them, but what I need to hear and what I want to hear is, Father forgive me. And on the cross that is what you and I hear. On the cross you and I do benefit in a great way from his misery.
But at that cross on the day he died, what do we see? We see those soldiers casting lots for clothes, while Jesus is speaking words of forgiveness meant to help them and everyone else know how they could be clothed with something far more wonderful for the rest of their lives and even forever. But what if Jesus reacted to our nonchalant going about our business of life in the same way those soldiers reacted to his momentous words about eternal life? What if Jesus cast lots? What if Jesus cast lots to see if he would forgive us or not? What if Jesus rolled the dice to see if that sin was or was not quite bad enough to be punished? What if Jesus played a game to see if that twenty-third time we said the same filthy word, or that forty-fifth time we permitted the same lustful thought to come into our mind, or the sixty-sixth time we hurt the feelings or the reputation or the body of someone in our life was now the time we had crossed the line beyond the ability of the blood he shed for the sins of the world.
While we confess that that is exactly what those sins deserve – and while we dare not play games of chance with the compassion of God – what is above all the thing we want to treasure and cherish as we see Jesus hanging on the cross on the hill called The Skull is that when he said, “Father, forgive them,” he is at one and the same time answering my prayer and my plea, “Father forgive me,” something that you and I confess is a gracious forgiving of me because it is something that I have done absolutely nothing to cause him to do. It is only something I can say “Thank You” to him for that he did.
And it is also something that leads me to want to say in thankful love about everybody else in my life, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” That person who does not like me, “Father, forgive them.” That person who has lied about me, “Father, Forgive them.” That person who took that from me, “Father, forgive them.” That person who makes life rough for me almost every day, “Father, forgive them.” That person who doesn’t seem to care whether I forgive them or not, “Father, forgive them.” And since that is so hard for any of us to say and to do, our Lord in his love encourages all of us to keep filling ourselves with the forgiveness which Jesus won for us when he was on that cross and spoke those words of forgiveness, because what Jesus did by actually dying after speaking all those seven words on the cross was making it clear that nothing we have ever done will ever cause his heavenly Father not to forgive us.
There alone is the comfort and the strength and the motivation to go about our lives not in the misery of revenge but in the freedom of grace and to make it clear that nothing anyone could ever do to us could keep us from forgiving them, either. It is not excusing their sins; it does not mean that there may not be an earthly consequence of their sins; it does not mean that we have to let them sin against us again and again. What it does mean is that an attitude of forgiveness is bigger than that, because God’s love in Christ is bigger than that – for them – and for us. And if there is someone who in unbelief continues to not care about hurting us or being forgiven by us, then we pray that they will get out of their misery by remembering that God cares for them and wants them to know he truly has forgiven them, just like he has done for us. That’s the whole reason why Jesus was on the hill called The Skull, lifted up on that cross above by the soldiers below.
Those soldiers of all things and in all places were casting lots on Calvary. In everything we do and in every place we go, remember that there is not a chance in the world that your Lord has not forgiven you. “Father, forgive them” means that Jesus has forgiven me. Amen.