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.”
Three men being crucified, suffering excruciating pain, literally. (The word “excruciating” comes from the Latin cruciare, “to crucify.”) One man begins taunting Jesus, sarcastically calling out for salvation he knows Jesus can’t deliver. The other, sensing something that he has never felt before, defends Jesus as an innocent victim. Then, in desperate hope, he cries out: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” In response Jesus says a most astounding thing, a most encouraging thing, a most curious thing: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
It’s easy to imagine the jeers of the crowds at this point as they made fun of Jesus’ silly wishful thinking. After all, he’d only been on the cross for an hour or two. Most crucifixions lasted several days before the victim finally died from exhaustion, exposure, loss of blood, and suffocation. The crowds must have thought: “Today in Paradise? What a joke! All Jesus and the stooge beside him will experience today is ultimate pain and ultimate disgrace. If they are lucky, perhaps tomorrow they might die. And even then, Paradise? Hardly!”
The word “Paradise” comes from a Persian word meaning “garden.” It was used to describe a place of beauty, peace, and joy. In Jewish thought, Paradise represented the Garden of Eden and could stand for the joys of heaven. Paradise was just about as far as one could get from crucifixion. Yet, in spite of the apparent absurdity of it, and in spite of the spiteful laughter of the crowd, Jesus promises that the thief will join him in Paradise even this very day.
Luke 23:39-43 has often perplexed Christians who believe that salvation comes only by explicitly confessing Jesus as Savior and Lord. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” hardly fits the bill here. Whatever the desperate thief believed about Jesus, it’s unlikely that he prayed what we call “the sinner’s prayer” while on his cross. Moreover, we have no reason to believe that Jesus straightened out the thief’s theology before offering the promise of Paradise. No, what we have in the text of Luke is a cry of minimal faith and maximal desperation. And what we have from the mouth of Jesus is a response of monumental mercy.
It would be unwise to build a whole theology of salvation on the basis of this single passage from Luke. It would also be unwise to build a theology of salvation without taking seriously this passage. Whatever else, it reminds us that God is “rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:4). God saves us, not because we earn it, not because we deserve it, not because we say the right words and pray the right pryers, and not even because we get our theology right, but because God is full of mercy, mercy revealed and poured out through Jesus Christ, mercy that says to a thief: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
If this crucified criminal could have hope, then perhaps you and I can as well. We hope, not in our goodness, not in our good intentions, but in the matchless mercy of God. As I reflect on Jesus’ response to the thief, I’m reminded of a marvelous hymn by Frederick William Faber, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy.” It turns out that this hymn is actually an excerpt from a longer piece written by Faber, called “Souls of Men! Why Will Ye Scatter.” I’ll close today with all of Faber’s verses:
Souls of men, why will ye scatter
like a crowd of frightened sheep?
Foolish hearts, why will ye wander
from a love so true and deep?
Was there ever kindest shepherd
half so gentle, half so sweet,
as the Savior who would have us
come and gather round his feet?
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than up in heaven;
there is no place where earth’s failings
have such kindly judgment given.
There is welcome for the sinner,
and more graces for the good;
there is mercy with the Savior;
there is healing in his blood.
There is plentiful redemption
in the blood that has been shed;
there is joy for all the members
in the sorrows of the Head.
For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man’s mind.
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
But we make his love too narrow
by false limits of our own;
and we magnify its strictness
with a zeal he will not own.
Pining souls, come nearer Jesus,
and O come not doubting thus,
but with faith that trusts more bravely
his great tenderness for us.
If our love were but more simple,
we should take him at his word:
and our lives would be all sunshine
in the sweetness of our Lord.
Dear Lord, how I thank and praise you for your mercy. You give us, not what we deserve, but infinitely better. Thank you for hearing my cries to you, and for responding to me much as you did to the thief who sought your help. Thank you for remembering even me, and for the promise I have of Paradise beyond this life. There’s much I don’t understand about the afterlife, but what I know is that I will be with you, seeing you face to face. And in your presence there will be fullness of joy. That’s more than enough for me! Amen.