October 25, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Luke 23:39-43,
Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
My first thought is that I am both the penitent and the unrepentant criminal or sinner. My life is a continual duel between the two parts of me that can only be reconciled in Jesus. Some sins I commit over and over alternately repentant and defiant as if I have no fear of God. Others are crimes of passion — those flashes of emotion in reaction to being hurt, humiliated, embarrassed, offended in some way even when it was unintended.
I don’t believe that God punishes me for my sins, although I used to. I do suffer the consequences of my actions, but that’s not God’s doing. It either comes from within myself in the form of regret, recrimination, and sorrow or it comes from those I have sinned against as a deserved retribution.
This account appears only in Luke who emphasizes Jesus’ forgiveness over and over throughout his gospel. It’s interesting to me that Johnson in The Gospel of Luke points out, “The use of the personal name ‘Jesus’ is striking; it is used otherwise in Luke only by demoniacs or others seeking healing. The name itself, our course, means ‘the Lord saves.'” We each see the world through our own lenses. I’m grateful for the way that Luke perceived Jesus because my heart seems to need the reassurance of God’s love and forgiveness, the need to be saved. Jesus told the penitent criminal that today he will be with him. Johnson tells us that each time that Luke used this particular Greek word it signified a “special moment of revelation or salvation.” Jesus was salvation for this man at that moment just as he is for me in this moment and every time I am repentant.
What does Jesus mean by paradise? This word appears only three times in the Greek bible. The other two, 2 Corinthians and Revelation, “refer to the garden prepared by God for the first humans, the most noteworthy feature of which was the ‘tree of life’ according to Johnson. “It was a garden of joy and pleasure.” This is the kingdom of God, which can be ours when we completely submit our will to God’s. It means that the penitent part of me must be finally victorious over my unrepentant, defiant self. I pray that will happen as I prepare to die; I don’t have any confidence it will happen sooner.
I like what Barclay says about this state of mine, “Surely this story tells us above all that it is never too late to turn to Christ….So long as a man’s heart beats, the invitation of Christ still stands….It is literally true that while there is life there is hope.” Therein lies my hope.