We need to be cautious when we repeat the words of Jesus: “They know not what they do”.
This is another verse which is not necessarily all that difficult as such, but questions can and do arise concerning it. Also, problems can crop up as to how people should use the verse. How it was first used when uttered by Jesus, and how some folks use it today, might be rather different indeed.
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”
There are various issues that arise here. In his brand-new commentary, F. Scott Spencer says this about the verses being considered:
Such a breathtaking picture of the gospel’s power to save and forgive (cf. 1:77; 7:47-50; 24:44-47) inspires faith, gratitude, awe – and not a little anxiety and ambiguity. To thoughtful and faithful minds, not at all ignorant or recalcitrant, the “Father, forgive them” pleas raises as many questions as answers, not least concerning the scope of Jesus prayer in both its immediate setting and its broader significance for Christian ethics and spirituality.
Indeed, of all the commentaries I have consulted on this text, Spencer spends the most time looking at the various questions and issues that emerge from the text – all up a full eight pages’ worth. But other commentators speak to some degree about the matters at hand as well. There are at least four questions that can appear here.
First, it can be asked just how authoritative verse 23a is. That is, we need to be aware that the textual authenticity of the first half of the verse based upon the manuscript evidence is a matter of some debate. A number of the oldest and best manuscripts do not have it. But I will continue, assuming for now it may well be part of the inspired, canonical text.
Second, we can ask to whom Jesus was speaking specifically. Was it to those Romans who had directly put him on the cross? Or to the Jewish leaders as well who were complicit in this? Or to everyone, at least indirectly, since we all are sinners and we are all responsible for sending Christ to the cross? As such, here we have the issue of primary interpretation versus secondary application.
Third, how are we to understand the notion that they did not know what they were doing? If this was said only to those Roman soldiers and leaders immediately involved in this, we might say they were ignorant of the bigger divine picture. If the Jews are included however, they should have known what their own Scriptures had said.
Fourth, there are questions that arise concerning the issue of forgiveness: should everyone always be forgiven – for anything and everything, even if they do not repent? Let me discuss these final two questions in a bit more detail. As to the issue of ignorance, consider several other passages.
Peter told the Jews this in Acts 3:17-20:
“Now, fellow Israelites, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Messiah would suffer. Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus.”
And Paul says this in Acts 13:26-29:
“Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent. The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath.
Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb.”
In Acts 17:29-31 Paul says this to the Athenians:
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked
such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
Paul says this about himself in 1 Timothy 1:12-14:
I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
In these passages issues of ignorance and culpability are addressed. I simply raise them now to supplement what we find in the Lukan passage. A future article will need to go into these matters in more depth. But related to all this is the issue of forgiveness.
Verses like Matthew 18:22 which speak of the need to forgive ‘seventy times seven’ would seem to suggest that we forgive everyone all the time for all matters. But other passages seem to offer a different take on this, such as Luke 17:3 where Jesus again speaks of forgiveness: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.”
This and some other passages seem to speak about conditional forgiveness. So which is it? This and related questions are well worth exploring, but I have penned an entire article on this matter, so I invite readers to go here for more detail on this: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2014/07/11/on-unconditional-forgiveness/
But again, how we proceed depends in large measure on who we understand Jesus to be speaking to. Spencer finishes his eight pages of discussion on this by reiterating something we need to keep in mind:
But once more I hasten to stress that “they,” while wide in scope, is not a uniform entity. Luke consistently resists sweeping character stereotypes and appreciates differing, divided responses to God and God’s Messiah. As we have seen, Luke has already separated out, to some extent, the “bystander-people” from the leaders (23:35); and he now highlights an exceptional case of a repentant sinner addressed in Jesus’ next words from the cross.
But it is how people today will so often use this line from Jesus that I especially want to focus on. We hear it being used all the time. Sometimes, depending on the context, I cringe when I hear it being used. For example, too often some folks – often Christians – will use it in some sentimental and syrupy fashion.
Some horrific crime will have taken place, or another terror attack, or a ghastly rape, etc., and it is as if they simply want to make excuses for all of this great evil: “Yeah but they do not know what they are doing.” These folks are often just making excuses for sin and blinking an eye at evil.
The truth is, more often than not, those who are doing the evil know exactly what they were doing. They know full well what they have done, as their actions were undertaken deliberately and defiantly. So it does no good just to say we should glibly forgive and forget.
Whether an individual believer who has been sinned against wants to forgive the offender, that is one thing. But social justice is different, and those who do wrong should be punished for their crimes, not just dismissed with a bumper sticker cliché.
When real evil takes place, there is nothing amiss in believers seeking justice – giving to each one his or her due. Sure, law courts take into matters of ignorance, at least to some extent, when deliberating on cases. But generally speaking, as anyone caught speeding for example has discovered, ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse.’
People who are killing unborn babies really do know what they are doing – they can see the gruesome results right before their eyes. Those who have declared war on marriage and family know what they are doing – indeed, they are implementing a long-standing agenda. Those who fly airplanes into the buildings of infidels know what they are doing – and they are proud of it.
So we need to be a bit more circumspect in using this verse when it comes to evil. For the most part sinners know what they are doing. As such, they are fully responsible for their sins, and they will be judged accordingly. We help no one when we misappropriate this passage to make excuses for sin – or for sinners.