‘They know not what they do’

Christ Crucified, by Diego Velazquez

This day, Good Friday, has at its centre the crucifixion of Jesus – the shocking, humiliating and utterly devastating ending of a life that many had hoped would bring about a radical new way of life.  But Good Friday is only one half of the diptych – Easter day celebrates the second half of the story in the resurrection of Jesus.

What the life of Jesus meant, seemed to be obvious to those around him – channelling the love and mercy of God, and bringing wholeness and healing.  Yet what the death of Jesus meant, was not at all obvious to his disciples and it took much thought, reflection and inspiration to begin to understand it.  This happened in abundance from the Feast of Pentecost onwards, when Peter declared with utter conviction that Jesus died for ‘the forgiveness of sins’ (Acts 5:31)

But quite what forgiveness means is a puzzle.  I came across a really helpful explanation of it in the writings of the thinker Hannah Arendt.*  Our lives are marked out by the actions we humans take – not so much the work that we do of necessity to put a roof over our head and food on our plate – but actions we make in our lives together with other people – family, friends and the wider community.  Our actions set in motion a chain of events, mostly with intended effects: I buy and give my Mum a bunch of flowers as I intend to give her a token of my love.  The problem is, actions can have effects that we had absolutely no intention of bringing about; consequences that we could not have imagined or predicted and which go beyond the control of us.  As well, an action by its very nature, is irreversible, much like a word that has been spoken and released into the public sphere can never be unspoken.  It is only with the luxury of hindsight that we can really assess how wise or judicious a particular action was.  But we don’t live life backwards, we live it forwards, always making actions into the unwritten, unseen future, vaguely, if at all aware, that while we might exercise a degree of freedom in those activities, we have no sovereignty over their consequences.  And as much as that is what happens when I act, it is also what I have to bear when other people’s actions have consequences for me.

It is into this reality of shared human lives, that forgiveness is able to redeem us from the irreversibility of actions.  Forgiving and being forgiven releases us from the consequences of what we have done and what people have done to us.  As Jesus was dying on the cross he called to God ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do’. Doing things, acting, not fully knowing what we are doing is an everyday thing, part of what it is to be human.  Every action we take sets up a new web of relations which effect other people, as their acting also does to us.

Someone may have acted and you were really upset by what they did – they didn’t consciously set out to upset you, but that was the effect it had on you.  Forgiveness brings a release.  Forgiveness isn’t saying ‘It doesn’t matter’, because it does matter.  Forgiveness is saying ‘The effect of that action stops here’.  The consequences go no further.  I release the power it has over me.

Jesus’ disciples were rather taken aback by his response when they asked how many times should they forgive someone – perhaps seven times, that’s quite a generous number?  Jesus said – No, every time!  Seven times seven.  We need to forgive and be forgiven for all those things we know not what we did, if ever we are to live free.  And as we do that we will also find the power and forgiveness of God to release us from consequences of actions in our past that stop us from living free.

No wonder St Paul saw in the message of forgiveness through Christ crucified ‘The power and the wisdom of God.

Happy Easter.


Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition


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