The promise of life is always undeserved

Tomorrow is Good Friday, and so it seems appropriate to focus on Jesus’ promise of life to one of those dying with him on a cross: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23.43). Throughout the Gospel of Luke we see Jesus showing special concern for those living on the very margins of society, but here on the Cross Jesus embraces the greatest of outsiders and promises him a place in paradise. Jesus was truly outrageous in the way in which he extended his love to all.

Who was this man to whom Jesus addressed this ‘word’ from the cross? The modern English versions speak of him as a ‘criminal’ – literally, says Luke, he was an ‘evil doer’ (kakourgos). In all likelihood he was a ‘zealot’ seeking to overthrow the Roman occupation of Palestine – a 1st century equivalent of a today’s 21st century terrorist. He was a brutal and ruthless man, with little to commend him.

Unfortunately tradition has painted a false picture of him. One legend makes him a Jewish Robin Hood who robbed the rich to give to the poor. Another legend tells of how when Mary and Joseph were attacked by robbers as they fled with the baby Jesus from Bethlehem to Egypt, Jesus was saved by the son of the leader of the robber gang. The story goes that the leader’s son was so struck by the beauty of the baby Jesus that he said: “O most blessed of children, if ever there come a time for having mercy on me, then remember me and forget not this hour”. According to the legend, the robber met him again at Calvary – and this time Jesus saved him!

Not only are such legends not true, they are distinctively unhelpful. For they have made out that this man was not such a bad chap after all, whereas, in fact he was a rotter, an ‘evil doer’. He had blood on his hands; and yet Jesus saved him. If ever there was a man who deserved not to be saved, it was him. Here we have an important illustration of the truth nobody is ever too bad for Jesus to forgive. It doesn’t matter who we are or what we have done, with Jesus we can always begin again. If Jesus could forgive a dying criminal with blood on his hands, he can forgive you – and me.

What caused this man to cry out: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23.42)? We can’t pretend that he had any developed understanding of who Jesus was. He certainly recognized that Jesus didn’t deserve to die, for as he said to his fellow terrorist, “this man has done nothing wrong” (23.41). But whereas the other man mocked Jesus for claiming to be a king, this man dared to ask a favour from Jesus as he assumed his throne. Somehow he realised that Jesus was a king who could save him. In the words of Alfred Plummer:

Some saw Jesus raise the dead, and did not believe. The robber sees him being put to death and believes.

Nonetheless the response of Jesus was still remarkable: “Today you will be with me in Paradise”. What an amazing statement. Here is a man who admits that he deserves to die, and yet to him Jesus promises life. It doesn’t seem fair that such a man should secure acquittal before the bar of heaven with this last-minute appeal to Jesus. But then, if fairness were to be the judge, then nobody would be saved. The fact that our sins are grey in colour, rather than bright red, makes not a whit of difference. All of us deserve to die in our sins.

In one important respect this terrorist sets an important example. He turned to Jesus before it was too late. Unlike the Rich Fool who built bigger barns (Luke 12.16-21) and unlike the Rich Man at whose gate Lazarus used to beg (Luke 16.19-31), this terrorist realized his need in time. He believed – even as he died. Yet, as an American preacher pointed out, it would have been even better if he had discovered a little earlier the difference Jesus can make to life. “His tragedy”, said Howard Hageman, “is that his introduction to paradise came so late… And his glory is that he found him in time. His tragedy and his glory are not unlike yours and mine. And Good Friday is the opportunity to redeem tragedy into glory. For what is our tragedy but our failure to grasp what Christ can do for our lives here and now? And what is our glory but to discover with him how to live in heaven while we live on earth?”

One comment

  1. Matthew’s version of events is entirely different. No mention of paradise for the thief and Jesus’s final words are “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?””

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