Throughout his pastoral career, King developed several sermons on love, including this handwritten outline exploring forgiveness and living in accordance with God's teaching.1
“Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”2
Introduction: Notice closely the word with which our text opens: “Then.” The verse which immediately precedes it reads thus, “And when they were come to the place, which is called Clavery, there they crucified Him; and the malefactors, one on the right hand and the other on the left.”3 Then, said Jesus, Father, forgive them. “Then”—when he was
the victim of man's most dying igh A most ignominous death. “Then”—when he was being plunged into the abyss of nagging agony. “Then—when man had stooped to his worst. “Then”—when the wicket hands of the creature had dared to crucify the only begotten son of the creator. “Then”—when the vileness of the human heart was displayed in climatic devilry. Then, said Jesus, Father Forgive them Behind that then could have been another reaction. Then he could have said, “Father, get even with them. Then he could have said, “Father let loose the mighty thunderbolts of righteous wrath and slay them. Then he could have said, “Father open the flood gates of justice, and let the staggering avalance of retribution pour upon them.” But this is not his response. Though subjected to unspeakable shame, though suffering excruciating pain, though despised, rejected, hated, nevertheless, He cries, “Father, forgive them.”
Let us notice two basic lessons from this text
It is an expression of Jesus’ ability
to to live in the closest detail the sublime philosophy which his lip had proclaimed Match his sublime teachings with matchless living.4
One of the tragedies of life is that very few men match their profession with practice5
He had spoken about love (Love your enemies) and forginess.6
Then comes the moment of testing. Will he reveal the love and forgiveness that he has talked about. He responds by proving that his deeds are equal to his words.7
It is an expression of Jesus awareness of man’s stupidity. They know not what they do.
1. King later developed this sermon further and included it in a thematic series (King, “Levels of Love,” Sermon Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, 16 September 1962, pp. 437-445 in this volume). He would also submit a version of this sermon for publication (King, Draft of Chapter IV, Strength to Love, “Love in Action,” July 1962-March 1963, pp. 486-494 in this volume). According to a 3 April 1960 program from Ebenezer, King preached the sermon “Love in Action.”
2. Luke 23:34.
3. Luke 23:33.
4. In a later version of this sermon that King kept in his sermon file, he continued: “This was Jesus finest hour, this was his heavenly response to his earthly rendezvous with destiny We sense the greatness of this prayer by contrast. Nature does not forgive. It is caught in the finality of its impersonal structure. In spite of the agonizing pleas of men trapped in the path of an onrushing hurricane or the anguishing cry of a builder falling from the scaffold, nature expresses only a cold, serene and passionless indifference” (King, Love and Forgiveness, Sermon notes, 20 May 1964).
5. In another outline of this sermon, King wrote, “How often are our lives characterized by a high blood pressure of Creeds and an anemia of deeds” (King, Love in Action II, 3 April 1960)
6. Matthew 5:44.
7. In the other outline, King continued, “Jesus affirmed a higher law from the cross. He knew that an eye for an eye would leave everybody blind. He did not seek to overcome evil with evil. He overcame evil with good. What a magnificent lesson. Generations will rise and fall. Men will continue to worship the god of revenge and bow before the altar of retaliation; but ever and again this noble lesson of Calvery will be a nagging reminder that only goodness can drive out evil” (King, Love in Action II, 3 April 1960).
8. Fosdick, “Crucified by Stupidity,” in The Hope of the World, p. 223: “over the most shameful tragedies of history, as over the cross of Christ, the judgment stands: ‘They know not what they do.’”
9. Cf. Luke 18:13. In his sermon notes, King concluded at this point, “A second lesson comes to us from Jesus prayer on the cross. It is an expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual blindness. ‘They know..’ Blindness was their trouble; enlightenment was their need. Jesus was nailed to the cross not simply by badness but also by blindness. The men who [cried] ‘crucify him’ were not bad men but rather blind men. This tragic blindness expresses itself in many ominous ways in our own day. I. Some men feel that war is the answer to the problems of the world. Sincerity & conscientiousness in themselves are not enough. Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. The church must urge men to be kindhearted & sincere” (King, Love and Forgiveness, 20 May 1964).
CSKC-INP, Coretta Scott King Collection, In Private Hands, Sermon file, folder 120, ''Love in Action'' / ''Father Forgive.''