The Second Word from the Cross, Salvation:
Luke 23:43: (To the ‘penitent’ thief) Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.
Jesus’ second Word from the Cross is addressed not to God, but to another, very lowly, human being. What Jesus says has often been found puzzling and troubling. All four Gospels tell us that ‘two others’ were crucified alongside him, calling them variously ‘robbers’, ‘bandits’ and ‘criminals’. Matthew says they joined in the hectoring to which the crowd subjected Jesus. Only Luke records a verbal exchange, first between the two criminals, and then between one of them and Jesus. Tradition knows him as the ‘penitent’ thief, though even in Luke’s more detailed account, he expresses no repentance, only an acknowledgement that he is guilty where Jesus is innocent.
What should we conclude from Jesus telling this criminal “Today you will be with me in paradise”? It seems natural to read this as giving him a fast track to heaven, but this raises a question as to why he should be so favoured. If Jesus can fast track people to heaven, why does he not extend this privilege to his disciples, or his mother at the foot of the Cross? Why this man, an acknowledged wrong-doer who has not, as far as the Gospels tell us, expressed any sorrow or remorse for whatever it is he has done?
However natural this way of thinking, and the puzzling questions to which it leads, closer attention to what Jesus actually says points us in a different direction. To begin with, Jesus says ‘Today you will be with me’. This cannot directly refer to Good Friday, or to straightforward presence, because Jesus himself will still be on the Cross, and then in the tomb, until after the Sabbath. ‘Today’ means ‘at this moment’, but it cannot be a moment in human time. Rather it is ‘today’ in the eternity that is God’s time.
Similarly, while ‘paradise’ is easily taken to mean ‘heaven’ this cannot be quite right either. According to the Gospels, Jesus remains ‘earthbound’ for a significant period between the Crucifixion and the Ascension. The Creeds declare that, as an aspect of his Incarnation, when taken down from the Cross, Jesus was “dead and buried”, just like any other human being who has died. Indeed, older versions of the Apostles’ Creed go even further and expressly declare that from the Cross he ‘descended into Hell’, meaning the place where all the dead are to be found. Nor is his Easter Resurrection a translation from earth to heaven. It is, rather, a transformation of his still earthly presence, enabling him to meet and greet and eat with his disciples as before. It is not until the Ascension, forty days after Easter, that Jesus is ‘taken up’ into heaven.
So what then of the paradise that he seems to promise the thief? The term is of Persian origin and it means a garden. It ought to remind us of the Garden of Eden, a place unspoiled by sin. By his exchange with Jesus, the thief, though a sinner, is restored to innocence. Why? Because of his sudden, profound insight into who Jesus is. ‘Remember me when you come into your kingdom’. Familiarity with this biblical sentence often leads us to forget how truly astonishing it is that he makes this request. It requires him, in the midst of his own agony, to see past the appearances by which everyone else has been persuaded. When Pilate orders the sign ‘King of the Jews’ to be pinned to the Cross, his action is part taunt and part mockery. Matthew says this prompted the chief priests, scribes and elders to join in the mockery. Luke tells us the soldiers did likewise, and even another victim of their brutal treatment found some solace in hurling abuse as well. Only the penitent thief sees that the attribution of kingship is not mockery, or irony, at all, but the ultimate truth. The Cross, with all its blood and pain, is indeed a throne, the thorns are indeed a crown, and the Victim, somehow, is the Victor.
Christians affirm this truth and sing many fine hymns that proclaim it. Yet we know, if we are honest, how easy it is to slide into lip service. Comfort, security, prosperity are not our helpers here; often they are the obstacles. We hardly ever really see the truth as the thief in his wretchedness saw it. Jesus’ second Word reveals that the thief’s agonized request can give us a glimpse of what it means to enter paradise.
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