We Do Not Know What We Are Doing

“Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:32-34)

They had scourged him, lacerating his body; they had put a crown of thorns on his head; they had insulted him, made fun of him. They were now nailing him to the cross. And yet, in what they were doing, the Roman soldiers were degrading themselves more than him. “They do not know what they are doing”— surely their very humanity should have prevented them from inflicting upon another what they could not have faced themselves. That man should be so cruel to man—it was so then, and it is often so in our own time: man’s inhumanity to man.

“We do not know what we do”—that word is profound. The human voice of the Lord in his agony shows forth, here a divine generosity that is surprising, and so very consoling. It is as if the Lord wants to go further than we could ever go to excuse us. He will find any reason to relieve us of the burden of guilt, if he can. Indeed, the Roman soldiers knew no better. Their training had made them ruthless and very cruel. Of course their actions are to be condemned: someone must be responsible and so be guilty, but these men. . . “they do not know what they are doing.” So he prays: “Father, forgive them . . .” Were there ever words so sweet to the ears of those burdened and weighed down by wrongdoing and sin?

In every human life there are things, actions, and attitudes that need forgiveness; there are memories of foolishness and weakness that lurk like dark specters to haunt us when the spirit is low or the going hard. If only we could hear, clearly and within us, that we have been forgiven.

The Roman soldiers had not asked for forgiveness, and yet he asked that it should be given to them. If you and I truly want forgiveness, if our sorrow is real, what is it that stops us from knowing that we have been forgiven? Is it our failure to believe in his love for us? He loved those Roman soldiers, though they did not know him. He would not have forgiven them if he had not loved them. If we turn to him, want to love him, and ask for forgiveness, we may be sure that our sorrow for the wrongs we may have done will bring us closer to him, and with closeness, peace of mind.

It is a heartwarming moment to experience forgiveness, to know again that I am loved even when I have strayed from God or done wrong. To forgive is a lovely quality in God. It is equally lovely among ourselves. When distressed by guilt or overcome with remorse, never for one moment doubt God’s forgiveness. It is the faithful companion of our sorrow. And no matter what other people have done to us—the harm they have caused, the injustice they have inflicted, the ill will they have displayed—do not ever withhold your smile of forgiveness, even when they do not know what they do.

They drove nails through his hands, through his feet, to secure him on the cross. He had suffered the scourging, thorns battered into his head, insults, humiliations, taunting; now the pain, in hands and feet as the nails tore through his flesh. The pain in his body accompanied now the agony of his mind, the agony that was his in the garden on the night before. And yet he forgives, forgives them for what they are doing, for the pain they are inflicting, desperate almost to find an excuse:

“They know not what they are doing.” Were they but obeying orders, doing what they were told by other men anxious to kill this prophet? Can these soldiers be excused for their part in so grievous a crime? He forgives, ignoring, so it would seem, the question that we ask.

He forgives. “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”

Thus he prays those words of his, spoken not from weakness but from the strength of love which he has for us. There is a deeper truth for us to learn. It is that God seeks always to forgive; he will look for every reason to forgive, to make excuses for us, to understand.

Nonetheless he looks into our hearts to find “sorrow” or at least the beginnings of it. He expects us to be sorry, and to say so, to recognize the wrong we have done. There is comfort in remembering that a humble and contrite heart he will not spurn.

Father, forgive me; I do not know what I do. I do not know what I have done. But, Lord, is that entirely so? Is there not within me that uneasy feeling in which a voice speaks, a voice difficult to hear now because so often unheeded, a voice that speaks a reproach? That voice calls for a response by me; not a protest, not a curse, not a cry, but a prayer, one that pierces his heart so that love may flow from it—just one word: Sorry.

– – – written by Late Cardinal George Basil Hume