Not Knowing What We Do – and the Cross

The first of Jesus’ words from the Cross, spoken almost at the very moment when the act of crucifixion was being carried out, is a plea for the forgiveness of those who treat him thus: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Lk 23:34) What the Lord had preached in the Sermon on the Mount, he now puts into practice. He knows no hatred. He does not call for revenge. He begs forgiveness for those who nail him to the Cross, and he justifies his plea by adding: “They know not what they do.”

This theme of “not knowing” returns in Saint Peter’s sermon in the Acts of the Apostles. He begins by reminding the crowd that had gathered after the healing of the lame man in the portico of Solomon that they had “denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer” to be granted to them. (3:14) You “killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.” (3:15) After this painful reminder, which forms part of his Pentecost sermon and which cut his hearers to the heart (cf. 2:37), he continues: “Now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.” (3:17)

Once again, the theme of “not knowing” appears in one of Saint Paul’s autobiographical reflections. He recalls that he himself “formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted” Jesus; then he continues: “but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief.” (1 Tim 1:13) In view of his earlier self-assurance as a perfect disciple of the Law who knew and lived by the Scriptures, these are strong words; he who had studied under the best masters and who might reasonably have considered himself a real expert on the Scriptures, has to acknowledge, in retrospect, that he was ignorant. Yet his very ignorance is what saved him and made him fit for conversion and forgiveness.

This combination of expert knowledge and deep ignorance certainly causes us to ponder. It reveals the whole problem of knowledge that remains self-sufficient and so does not arrive at Truth itself, which ought to transform man. In a different way again, we encounter this same combination of knowledge and failure to understand in the story of the wise men from the East. The chief priests and scribes know exactly where the Messiah is to be born. But they do not recognize him. Despite their knowledge, they remain blind. (cf. Mt 2:4-6).

Clearly this mixture of knowledge and ignorance, of material expertise and deep incomprehension, occurs in every period of history. For this reason, what Jesus says about ignorance, and the examples that can be found in the various passages from Scripture, is bound to be unsettling for the supposedly learned today. Are we not blind precisely as people with knowledge? Is it not on account of our knowledge that we are incapable of recognizing Truth itself, which tries to reach us through what we know? Do we not recoil from the pain of that heartrending Truth of which Peter spoke in his Pentecost sermon?

Ignorance diminishes guilt, and it leaves open the path to conversion. But it does not simply excuse, because at the same time it reveals a deadening of the heart that resists the call of Truth. All the more, then, it remains a source of comfort for all times and for all people that both in the case of those who genuinely did not know (his executioners) and in the case of those who did know (the people who condemned him), the Lord makes their ignorance the motive for his plea for forgiveness: he sees it as a door that can open us to conversion.

Three groups of mockers are mentioned in the Gospel. The first are the passers-by. They remind the Lord of his words about the destruction of the Temple: “Aha, you who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” (Mk 15:29-30) By taunting the Lord in this way, they express their contempt for his powerless state; they bring home to him once more how powerless he is. At the same time they try to lead him into temptation, as the devil himself had done: “Save yourself!” Exercise your power! They do not realize that at this very moment the destruction of the Temple is being accomplished and that the new Temple is rising up before them.

At the end of the Passion, as Jesus dies, the veil of the Temple is torn in two – so the Synoptics tell us – from top to bottom. (Mt 27:51; Mk 15:38; Lk 23:45). Probably it is the inner of the two Temple veils that is meant here, the one that seals off the Holy of Holies from human access. Only once a year is it permitted for the high priest to pass through the veil, to enter the presence of the Most High, and to utter the Holy Name. This veil, at the very moment of Jesus’ death, is torn in two from top to bottom. . . .Now God himself has removed the veil and revealed himself in the crucified Jesus as the one who loves to the point of death. The pathway to God is open.


The second group of mockers consists of members of the Sanhedrin. Matthew mentions all three elements: priests, scribes, and elders. They formulate their mockery using language drawn from the Book of Wisdom, the second chapter of which tells of the just man who stands in the way of the wicked life of the others, who calls himself a son of God and is handed over to suffering. (Wis 2:10-20)

The members of the Sanhedrin, taking their cue from these words, now say of Jesus, the Crucified One: “He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ” (Mt 27:42-43; cf. Wis 2:18) Without realizing it, the mockers thereby acknowledge that Jesus is truly the one of whom the Book of Wisdom speaks. His situation of outward helplessness proves him to be the true Son of God.

We may add that the author of the Book of Wisdom could have been familiar with Plato’s speculations from his work on statecraft, in which he asks what would become of a perfectly just person in this world, and he comes to the conclusion that such a person would be crucified. (The Republic II, 361e—362a) The Book of Wisdom may have taken up this idea from the philosopher and introduced it into the Old Testament, so that it now points directly to Jesus.

It is in the mockery that the mystery of Jesus Christ is proved true. Just as he refused to be induced by the devil to throw himself down from the parapet of the Temple (Mt 4:5-7; Lk 4:9-13), so now he refuses to yield to a similar temptation. He knows that God will indeed deliver him, but not in the way these people imagine. The Resurrection will be the moment when God raises him from death and accredits him as Son.

The third group of mockers consists of the two men crucified alongside Jesus, to whom Matthew and Mark refer using the same word – lestes (robber) – that John uses for Barabbas. (cf. Mt 27:38; Mk 15:27; Jn 18:40) This clearly shows that they are regarded as resistance fighters, to whom the Romans, in order to criminalize them, simply attach the label “robber.” They are crucified with Jesus because they have been found guilty of the same crime: resistance to Roman power.

The offense attributed to Jesus, though, is of a different kind from that of the two “robbers,” who may have taken part in Barabbas’ uprising. Pilate is well aware that Jesus had nothing like that in mind, and so he adopts a particular formulation of Jesus’ “crime” in the charge that is placed above the Cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” (Jn 19:19).

Up to this point, Jesus had avoided the title Messiah or king, or else he had immediately linked it with his suffering (cf. Mk 8:27-31) in order to prevent false interpretations. Now the title “king” can appear quite openly. In the three great languages of that time, Jesus is publicly proclaimed king. It is understandable that the members of the Sanhedrin object to this title, in which Pilate clearly wants to express his cynicism toward the Jewish authorities and to take his revenge on them post factum. But this inscription now stands before world history, and it amounts to a proclamation of kingship.

Jesus is “exalted.” The Cross is his throne, from which he draws the world to himself. From this place of total self-sacrifice, from this place of truly divine love, he reigns as the true king in his own way – a way that neither Pilate nor the members of the Sanhedrin had been able to comprehend.

Of the two men crucified with Jesus, only one joins in the mockery: the other grasps the mystery of Jesus. He knows and he sees that the nature of Jesus’ “offense” was quite different – that Jesus was nonviolent. And now he sees that this man crucified beside him truly makes the face of God visible, he is truly God’s Son. So he asks him: “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power.” (Lk 23:42)

What exactly the good thief understood by Jesus’ coming in his kingly power, and what he therefore meant by asking Jesus to remember him, we do not know. But clearly, while on the Cross, he realized that this powerless man was the true king – the one for whom Israel was waiting. Now he wanted to be at this man’s side not only on the Cross, but also in glory. Jesus’ response goes beyond what is asked of him. Instead of an unspecified future, he speaks of that very day: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Lk 23:43). This too is a mysterious saying, but it shows us one thing for certain: Jesus knew he would enter directly into fellowship with the Father – that the promise of “Paradise” was something he could offer “today.” He knew he was leading mankind back to the Paradise from which it had fallen: into fellowship with God as man’s true salvation. –From Jesus of Nazareth Part Two, Holy Week


*Image: Christ on the Cross by Mihály Munkácsy, 1884 [Déri Museum, Debrecen, Hungary]. This is one of Munkácsy’s Christ Trilogy at the Déri. In situ:

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Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) was elected on April 19, 2005. He resigned on February 28, 2013, the first pope to do so in nearly 600 years. Pope Emeritus Benedict lives in the Mater Ecclesiae monastery in the Vatican.