Quoting Jesus: The Practice of Radical Forgiveness

Lots of people love to quote Jesus. We hear his words echoed in the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Or see them scrawled on the sidewalk prophet’s sign: “Repent! The kingdom of heaven is near.” Or hear them when someone is deflecting public criticism, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Even people who don’t consider themselves follows of Christ can parrot his famous phrases.

But of all the lines I could repeat, there’s one I tend to skip. It’s this one, from Jesus final words on the cross before his death: “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Here’s why it makes me uncomfortable:

1. It offers mercy, not judgment, to people who have committed very real crimes.
Make no mistake. The reason Jesus asks for them to be forgiven is because they have done something that deserves justice. But he requests Divine Mercy anyway. That’s not my default. When I’ve been wronged, my first instinct isn’t to extend mercy, it’s to settle the score.

2. It acknowledges God as ultimate judge. Jesus doesn’t simply show grace to his killers, he publicly implores God the Father to forgive them. Jesus knows eternal justice transcends human attempts at judgment. God’s mercy is richer and greater than ours. If God forgives someone, and we’re seeking to honor God, we are compelled to follow suit.

3. It allows for human frailty. Jesus’s line here admits that people, even when they commit heinous acts, are often acting out of ignorance. They don’t have the capacity, perspective, or even desire, to see the big picture. They make snap decisions out of self-interest without any appreciation for the long-term fallout. Sometimes people are more clueless than they are malicious. It’s easier to harbor resentment towards people if they carried out a calculated, premeditated act. But it seems that, more often than not, that’s not really the case.

No, I don’t quote this one very often. Not because it isn’t right, or helpful. But because it forces me to value mercy over judgment, to place God’s sense of justice over my own and to allow for others’ brokenness. But I’m learning that if I want to grow, I need the grace to resist resentment. And this is one of those lines that helps me do just that.


Craig Custance