"Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing." (Lk 23:34)
Address delivered on April 23, 1943, by Msgr. Fulton Sheen
"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
On the mountain of the Beatitudes Our Divine Lord said: "Love your enemies."
Now, on the Mount on Calvary, He practices what He preached. As He is nailed to His Cross, for the first time in the hearing of our world there was uttered a prayer for those who gave one pain. "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." Father! God is no vague cosmic power, no Mindless Mover, no Mathematician — He is a Father. Now, in the name of all the prodigal children of the world, He says, "I will arise and go to the Father," to ask pardon for all of us. Father forgive! Forgive whom? Pilate, Annas, Caiphas, Judas — yes, and all of us.
Only God can forgive. Nature never forgives. If you cut your finger, it bleeds. Our fellow men but rarely forgive. Society never forgives. That is why there are sanctions, punishments, and prisons. Nor can we ever forgive ourselves. Lady Macbeth after the murder of Duncan said she could not even say "Amen," it choked in her throat. Never could she wash the blood off her hands. Not all the waters of the seven seas were enough to wash that blood incarnadined from her hands.
Only God forgives. "Father, forgive them." And the reason? "Because they know not what they do."
Who are the "they" who know not? They are the aimless people. How many aimless people there were in His day, and how many in our own, whose lives have no pattern, no object, no goal; whose existence is very much like the staccato paragraphs of our modern columnists jumping, flitting like a butterfly from one idea to another, but never tying them together into a coherent whole. How many existences there are like the make-up of a newspaper, a conglomeration of all points of view, but nothing to live by; lives that resemble modern music that allows any instrument to pick off a tune and carry it on its own, quite apart from the concert and the harmony of the whole. These are the people who know not what they do.
But why was Our Lord so ready to forgive? I think the reason is because He loves us. In just the proportion that we love anyone, we are willing to forgive him. A mother without much education will write a letter to her son who is in camp. If he were to show it to a grammarian, he would say that it contained many mistakes; but to that son the letter is flawless.
Why is every mother much more willing to condone the faults of her own child than to condone the faults of her neighbor’s child? Is it not because she loves her child more than her neighbor’s? Wherever there is love, there is forgiveness. Hence when Peter came to an understanding of love, after Pentecost, one of the first sermons that he preached was: "The author of life you killed . . . I know that you did it through ignorance" (Acts 3:15, 17). Peter was filled with love; therefore he was willing to understand. Early in Christ’s public life, James and John were angry because the Samaritans had rejected Our Divine Lord and received Him not into their city. These two brothers, whom Our Divine Lord had called "the sons of thunder," asked God to send down lightening from heaven and destroy them. It was indeed fitting that the "sons of thunder" should want Him to "send down lightening. But Our Divine Lord said: "You know not, you know not what spirit you are. You have no love. You are not willing to forgive." John understood that later on when as an old man he was constantly sending out messages of love. Almost every line of his epistle reads love, love, love.
Love thy neighbor and then you will forgive!
Because God loves, He is willing to forgive; and therefore God never adds our sins. If we return that love, He only subtracts.
If this Word from the Cross has any meaning for us, it should infuse into us two resolutions. First a willingness to forgive. There is a terrible increase of hate in the world today. Perhaps war increases the tension of people and therefore makes them hate. If people only knew it, every time they hate somebody else, they fall victim to that person. Think of how many there are in our land today who have fallen victims to Hitler because they hate him. They do not love justice. They just despise someone. If we but know it, every time we hate anyone we are criticizing ourselves. Our Divine Lord said: "Judge not, that you may not be judged" (Matthew 7:1).
Judge not, that you may not be judged — by whom? By those who hear you judge your neighbor. The criticism that we make of others is in almost every instance a criticism of ourselves. The measure of a person’s character is the size of the things that make him mad. Who are those who are most apt to condemn infidelity in someone else except those who are themselves unfaithful? They minimize their own guilt by projecting it into someone else. That is why every time they judge, they judge themselves. Those who are constantly accusing someone else of dishonesty are generally dishonest themselves. That may be the reason why so many politicians are always fond of calling one another grafters.
To seek forgiveness is the second resolution. Never deny that you are a sinner. There are tens of thousands of people in the United States who are today going to psychoanalysis, when all they need is a good confession. Our Divine Lord is willing to forgive. "If your sins be as scarlet, they shall be made as white as snow" (Isaias 1:18). "I am not come to call the just, but the sinners . . . they that are in health need not a physician, but they that are ill" (Matthew 9:12-13).
Now that we enter into these last few days of Holy Week, let any one of you who may be Catholic and has not been to Confession for some time resolve to go tomorrow. Be convicted of sin, not just because sin is wrong; be convicted of it because you see its relation to the Cross. That is the way we should be convinced of our own wickedness in every case. How often, for example, when a husband and wife are blessed with a child, will they stand before that baffling bit of humanity and begin to see their want of selflessness. That child convicts them of sin. They never knew before how selfish they were. Let this Cross and the forgiveness of Our Lord convict you of sin. He is more willing to forgive you than you are to be forgiven.
There is a legend to the effect that one day the devil went before the throne of God and said, "Why is it that you are willing to forgive some people thousands and thousands of sins and yet you can never forgive me for my one sin?" And the answer that God gave was, "Well, did you ever ask Me?" Have you? Peter was not made Pontiff until he had fallen three times. And if you had never sinned, you never could call Christ, "Savior."