Luke 23: 39-43
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Last week in our Lenten Study on the Seven Last Words of Christ, we discussed this exchange between Jesus and the two individuals who were being crucified alongside him.
Little information is given about these two. They are referred to as criminals, with some translations telling us that they were “thieves.”
We also know that along with Jesus, these two are near death, suffering through the excruciatingly painful physical experience of being crucified. What we read is that the two criminals make vastly different requests of Jesus.
One says “Save yourself and us,” and the other, addressing Jesus by name, says “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” This second criminal does not ask for deliverance from his death sentence. He does not ask to be rescued from his current circumstances. He simply asks to be remembered.
The Gospels tell us that the crucifixion of Jesus took place over a six-hour period, from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon. At around noon, we are told that the sky became dark, as the agony of Jesus reached a fever pitch.
The magnitude of this six-hour period is beyond what we can describe in words. It was not just the death of Jesus that was happening. The forces of sin and death were being met head-on by the stronger forces of creation, love, and forgiveness. In the midst of His suffering, God is redeeming all of creation. By taking the route of death on the cross, God is creating the path to life beyond death.
In the middle of this cosmic redemption event, Jesus turns to the thief beside him and speaks words as profound as any that he ever uttered. He makes a pronouncement that symbolizes everything that his life, ministry, death, and resurrection were about. He says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
In that moment of suffering, while doing the hard work of redemption, overcoming darkness and death, Jesus turns to the criminal and speaks words of hope and individual redemption. His words say, “I see and hear you. Yes, I will remember you, and you will be with me.”
Our faith teaches us that Jesus speaks these same words to us. The circumstances of our lives are what they are, and we are taught to pray for deliverance from pain and suffering. But we also know that God offers the greater gift of knowing and recognition. This greater gift is that God is with us, and that although we may not be freed of the pain of our current experience, we are redeemed and will be with God for eternity.
We remember the story last year of Sir Tom Moore, the British man who, at age 99, began walking in his garden to raise money and to encourage those who were ‘lonely and frightened’ during the COVID lockdown. He slowly walked a hundred laps in his garden to raise money for the National Health Service in honor of his 100th birthday.
He became an inspiration not only because of his fundraising efforts but also because of his humor and positive outlook on the future. He planned his funeral and joked that he intended to be watching “from a distance.” More notably, he projected a hopeful and positive outlook on dying. He said, “So even if tomorrow is my last day, if all those I loved are waiting for me then that tomorrow will be a good day too.”
For us, our faith gives us this assurance. We believe it to be this way: on the other side of this life we get to be with Jesus, and on this side of life Jesus is with us. It is that simple and yet that profound.
He sees us and knows us, and we are not and will not be forgotten.
A hymn that speaks to this truth is “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross.” The lyrics say:
Near the cross, a trembling soul, love and mercy found me; there the bright and morning star sheds its beams around me.
Near the cross! O Lamb of God, bring its scenes before me; help me walk from day to day with its shadow o’er me.
In the cross, in the cross, be my glory ever, till my raptured soul shall find rest beyond the river.
May we walk each day in the shadow of His love and mercy and in the assurance of that He is with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.