“They don’t know what they’re doing…”

sassandra_crucifixion2.jpg

This is a colour woodcut from Jacques Richard Sassandra (1932–), entitled “Père, pardonne-leur, [car] ils ne savent ce qu’ils font,” ( or, in English Father, Forgive Them...).

It’s that terrible -and wonderful- gut-wrenching moment in Luke 23:34, when Jesus offers forgiveness for those in the process of torturing him to death.

Sassandra depicts what has been described as “a mechanic’s view” of the crucifixion, highlighting the tools necessary for the job at hand. The body is characterised by curves, and the instruments of death and pain by squares and spikes. It’s an effective contrast. The torturers are grey, shadowed by the impending darkness as the storm gathers.The figure of Christ is in sharp relief, bright red in the sun, but contorted by the foreshortening.

It’s a brilliant design, though chilling and rather disturbing. The disturbance derives -for me, at least- from those tools of the trade. They remind us that this was an officially sanctioned death, carried out according to certain prescribed rules and procedures by trained professionals.

That is to say, in one way, they knew exactly what they were doing -and they still did it. The soldiers were under orders, like the gas fitters at Hitler’s camps. They were just doing a job.

Jesus asked forgiveness for the angry mob that had mocked Him, jeered Him, and called for His crucifixion (Mark 15:29–30). Again, they didn’t really know who they were trying to destroy. The Sadducees and the Pharisees had deceived them into believing that Jesus was a fake and a troublemaker (Acts 3:17). Jesus was forgiving the Sadducees and the Pharisees who had demanded His death. They had rejected Him as their Messiah even though they knew just who and what He was. Jesus, in His infinite mercy, still loved them and would have forgiven them had they only humbled themselves and repented (Matthew 18:14; 2 Peter 3:9).

Most importantly, on the cross Jesus was providing forgiveness for all those who would ever believe in Him (Matthew 20:28). The cross didn’t kill Jesus. The Romans didn’t kill Jesus. The Sadducees and Pharisees didn’t kill Jesus. Jesus willingly gave up His earthly life for the sins of His own (Ephesians 2:8–9). He paid the penalty for the sins that we commit in our ignorance (and even the ones we’ve committed deliberately). In forgiving us, Jesus fulfilled yet another Old Testament prophecy (Isaiah 53:12f). He also made a reality of His own preaching. He had said, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44); now He was proving it.

Stephen, the first Christian martyr, continued Jesus’ example (Acts 7:60). If they could forgive those who persecuted them, then surely we can forgive those who make themselves our enemies. The beauty of the Bible is that it reveals God’s forgiveness, available to us through Christ and exemplified in Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross (John 3:16–17). When we come to Christ in faith and repentance as a result of His drawing us to Himself (John 6:44), He says of us, “Father, forgive them,” and He does!

***

Jacques Richard (‘Sassandra’ is his artist name) is a Protestant French artist, who was born in 1932 to a missionary family in Sassandra, Ivory Coast, where he spent his youth. Upon returning to France he studied graphic arts, lithography and the drawing of letters, followed by three years of theological studies. Eventually he decided to take the competitive examination in order to become an art teacher in Parisian public schools. Successful in this, he taught in several secondary institutions until he retired, all the while giving himself to drawing, painting and woodblock printing, and striving to deepen his thinking about art. As a favourite activity on the side, he writes stories and poems. To see another of his works, go to http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/gallery/52lastsupper.html.

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