By Steven Norris

     It is one of the most poignant scenes in the account of Good Friday. Jesus is hanging there, nailed to a cross between two thieves. Looking down, he utters, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.”

     For whom is he praying, precisely? For the Roman centurions that nailed him there and were now casting lots for his clothing? For Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest who initiated the whole ridiculous trial to begin with? For Pilate, the Roman governor who refused to step in a save Jesus even though he had the power to do so?

     Was Jesus praying for the disciples who couldn’t stomach the sight of their master on display and fled from the mount, abandoning Jesus in his time of greatest need? For Peter, who was so afraid of a poor servant girl that he denied even knowing Jesus at three separate times? For Judas, whose betrayal had set the whole thing in motion?

     Fleming Rutledge observes that in the passion narrative, forgiveness is at the very center of the story — at least for those who are acting in ignorance. “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.” Then, she asks insightfully, “But to what extent does Christian forgiveness extend to those who know exactly what they are doing?”

     The disciples had already broached the subject with Jesus. They intuitively sensed that there had to be some kind of limit to the scope of forgiveness. Peter once came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Implicit in the question is the sense that, without limits, forgiveness could degenerate into a license for sin.

     Paradoxically, Jesus answers him, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” Seven is a symbolic number that represented fullness or completeness. As Hebrew scholar, Tim Mackie, points out, God created the cosmos in seven days (completeness). Not only that, but there are seven words in the first verse of scripture (Genesis 1:1). There are fourteen words in the second verse (Genesis 1:2). There are seven paragraphs in Genesis 1:1-2:3, the story of creation. Key words throughout Genesis 1 are repeated in multiples of seven. In other words, Jesus’ use of seven is freighted with significance.

     Jesus was not suggesting a “new law” where the disciples were obligated to forgive 490 times, where they could “take the gloves off” on the 491st instance. Rather, the scope of forgiveness Jesus calls the disciples to embody is this: completeness times completeness.

     This is the radical, scandalous nature of God’s grace. As we meditate on the cross this Good Friday, let us remember that Jesus did not wait for any the characters mentioned above to come to him in repentance or confession. Yet, I cannot help but think that “Amazing Grace” was the theme of their encounter with the crucified Christ — a grace that looked down from the cross and pleaded, “Father forgive them.” Praise God he did.