They Know Not What They Do


Rev. Mark Schaefer
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
April 10, 2022—Palm Sunday
Luke 23:32–38

This word of Jesus from the cross is by far the most “Christian” of the things Jesus says from the cross in the various gospel accounts. In fact, this story is one of the most “Christian” stories in the New Testament. It’s so full of mercy and grace.  Christ is upon the cross.  He has been betrayed by one of his disciples.  Denied by another.  Rejected by the leaders of his own people. Beaten. Flogged. Taunted. Mocked.  Nailed to a cross and left hanging to die alongside two common criminals.  The Romans are at the foot of the cross, gambling over his clothing.  Bystanders are mocking him, deriding him, scoffing at him.  And Jesus, rather than respond in anger, hate, or fear, responds only with grace: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

It’s a beautiful scene and a beautiful sentiment, full of mercy and forgiveness for a treacherous people.  

There’s just one problem with it: we knew what we were doing.


We knew exactly what we were doing.  

Let’s not kid ourselves.  Our moral failings are not that we don’t know right from wrong and so we make ill-informed decisions.  Our moral failings lie in the fact that we know that something is wrong, and we do it anyway.

Isn’t that at the heart of Paul’s lament in Romans?

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.

—Romans 7:19

We are hardly ill-informed innocents stumbling along in spiritual ignorance.  We would be better off if we were.  But no… we had to know good and evil.  It was precisely that knowledge that was so seductive to us in the Garden.  We wanted to know.  And we certainly have done so.

We knew it was wrong to take the fruit God had commanded us not to eat.  We did it anyway.  Cain knew it was wrong to murder his brother.  He did it anyway.  Jacob knew it was wrong to trick his brother out of his birthright.  He did it anyway.  Joseph’s brothers knew it was wrong to attempt to kill Joseph and then sell him into slavery.  They did it anyway.  Moses knew it was wrong to murder the Egyptian (he did, after all, try to hide his body in the sand); he did it anyway.  David knew it was wrong to betray Uriah by stealing Bathsheba and having Uriah killed in battle.  He did it anyway.  The Kings of Israel and Judah knew it was wrong to erect idolatrous shrines and to worship there. They did it anyway.  Jonah knew it was wrong to flee from the word of the Lord.  He did it anyway.  Jumping ahead a few hundred years, the tax collectors knew it was wrong to skim off the top.  They did it anyway.  Judas knew it was wrong to betray Jesus.  He did it anyway.  Peter knew it was wrong to deny even knowing Jesus—see how strongly he protested the very idea! He did it anyway. Three times.

Will we pretend that tax cheats are unaware of the tax code? Fathers who don’t pay for child support somehow don’t realize that it’s wrong not to do so?  People who “borrow” a little money from the till don’t know that they’re really stealing from their boss?  Or how about this one—anyone really believe that the speed limit is just some kind of guideline? We know these things are wrong. We just don’t care.

No, we are not innocents.  After Jesus says, “Father, forgive them; for the do not know what they are doing” one half expects one of the bystanders to say, “Jesus, you’re giving us too much credit.”

We know what we’re doing.


Of course, were he here, St. Augustine would not be surprised by anything I’ve been saying.  He knew it.  He knew it all too well. 

In his Confessions, Augustine laments his poor wretched state where he engaged in sin, not because he was some poor, misguided innocent, but because he knew it was wrong.  In one famous portion he writes:

There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night—having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was—a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden.

—St. Augustine, The Confessions

We might be tempted to tell Augustine that he perhaps is making too much of stealing a few pears.  Except that he did not see it that way.  Stealing the pears was a sign of a deeper brokenness in humanity.  He had neither desire nor need for the pears.  They didn’t taste good.  He wasn’t hungry.  They wound up giving them to some hogs.  He wanted to steal the pears because he knew it was wrong to do so.  In fact, the wrongness of the act was his primary motivator to do so.

And so, for Augustine, as for Luther and Calvin who came after him, humanity is depraved.  Wretched. Fallen.  I confess, the older I get, the more I think Augustine might have a point.  And any time I doubt our depravity, all I have to do is turn on the news.  Or better yet, talk radio.

We, like Augustine, aren’t blithely ignorant of morality and just clumsily stumbling through life making innocent mistakes.  We know what we’re doing.


But there is, perhaps, an area in which we are ignorant.  Calvinists argued that the fall from grace had resulted in our depravity to such a degree that we had lost knowledge of God.  Wesley would have noted that the image of God with which we were made had been tarnished, and unrecognizable. In fact, Wesley argued that the reclamation of this image of God was the “one thing needful.” The one task to which we are called.  

But has that image become so defaced, so tarnished that it is irreclaimable?  Have we fallen so far from grace that the angelic side is forever lost?  Are we destined to be brutes, selfish, hateful, cruel, and seeking our own advantage?  Is there anyone who upon gazing upon one of us deceitful, traitorous, denying, rejecting, scorning, mocking, abusing, and crucifying human beings might actually know our true nature?

God knows.  God knows who we are and who we are meant to be. And it is to that knowledge that Christ appeals.  

Jesus is too smart to not be aware that we know what we’re doing when we sin.  He’s too much aware of the working of the world to imagine that we somehow innocently stumbled into our rejection, betrayal, and denial of him.  That somehow we were duped into shouting “Crucify him!” and then seeking the release of a known murderer.  Jesus is many things, but he’s no fool.  He knows who he’s dealing with.

And so what might Jesus have meant, praying for our forgiveness because we know not what we do?

When Jesus says that we do not know what we are doing, perhaps he is appealing more to the fact that we do not know our true nature.  Perhaps we have become so accustomed to our sinful nature, that we, like Augustine in his youth, actually revel in our misdeeds.  We don’t know what we’re doing because we don’t truly know who we are: children made in the image of the one who made them.  Bearers of the Divine Imprint.  The window through whom God sees the creation and the world sees God.  Perhaps it is because we have imagined ourselves to be something else.  Something less.  And acted accordingly.  


You know, this story is a really “Christian” story.  Not because it overflows with Christian sentiment and nice words about forgiveness.  But because it presents us with a Christ who continues to demonstrate the love of God.

Jesus hangs upon the cross and looks down.  But he does not see a wretched rabble, quick to turn on those they claim to love.  He does not see a fickle crowed who shouts “Hosanna” on a Sunday and “Crucify him!” on a Friday.  Jesus does not see us in our brokenness; instead he sees brothers and sisters who have so lost sight of who they are meant to be that they act out in brokenness.  He does not see a condemned people, but a loved people.

And in that love, he calls out to the God in whose image they were made and cries, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

The Text

Luke 23:32–38 • Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”