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." Amen. (Luke 23:39-43)
On Palm Sunday we are given a preview of the Passion narrative, the story of Jesus’ death, which we will explore more deeply and with growing dramatic intensity as we journey the way of the Cross in the coming days leading to Easter. The Church, in its wisdom, has given us the Passion narrative in full today, so that we might make it the source of our meditation throughout Holy Week. As we prepare to do so, I invite you to begin with the story of the two criminals executed along with Jesus.
While the two criminals appear in each of the four canonical Gospels, Luke’s version is unique. In Mark and Matthew, both of the criminals taunt and reject Jesus. In John, the criminals do not interact with Jesus at all. Only in Luke do we have this contrast between the criminal who taunts Jesus along with the rulers and soldiers, and the criminal who recognizes Jesus as the Christ. It is a remarkable story. Why does Luke tell it in this way?
I think that Luke wishes to demonstrate the continuity between Jesus’ ministry and his dying. Even on the cross, Jesus reaches out to embrace the socially marginalized. Who is more socially marginal, more excluded, than a criminal being executed? Jesus, who stood in solidarity with outcasts and sinners, feeding them, healing them, welcoming them as children of God throughout his life, continues to do so until his last breath.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus already reveals himself to be the Christ here, on the cross, in his complete identification with the lost, the last, and the least. In so doing, he bodies forth the very love of God that embraces saint and sinner alike. In receiving this love, one criminal is moved to cry out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” For those who accept this love, Paradise can be found today, as Jesus tells the repentant criminal; no need to wait three days, or a lifetime, or for the end of time to experience the Resurrection. The kingdom of God is here and now, even in the midst of suffering.
Jesus, hanging on the cross, is already the Savior, the one who brings healing. Or, more properly, he continues to be the Savior, he demonstrates the truth of his identity consistently and to the end – and beyond. This is astonishing, but what is even more remarkable to me is that it is this criminal, despised and rejected like Jesus, who has the eyes to see this truth. Not the religious leaders; not the rulers of the world; not even Jesus’ disciples, his closest friends and followers; no, they remain blind. Some of them will come to see the truth in the light of the Resurrection, but it is only this guilty sinner receiving his just reward, who sees Jesus clearly even in his darkest moment.
But what is that he sees in Jesus? Here, I can only speculate, but I do so based on what we know of Jesus’ presence and similar responses it often evokes in others. I believe that this repentant criminal sees God in the face of Jesus, sees himself reflected in that face as the object of God’s love.
Archbishop Rowan Williams has written that “Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted.” (The Body's Grace) The repentant criminal hanging next to Jesus comes to perceive himself as one who is desired and loved by God. He begins to see himself as God sees him. He stands at the entrance to Paradise.
Repentance, then, begins by seeing ourselves as God sees us. When we do so, we find the courage to acknowledge the reality of guilt and suffering and loss in our lives, without allowing these to define us; even in the middle of life’s crucifixions we remain held in the gaze of our divine lover and know that we are so much more than what meets the eye.
One of the criminals finds the courage to see himself whole, both good and bad, and receive the love that is offered. The other criminal refuses to repent, remaining locked in an identity that is determined by judgment and curse, unwilling to reciprocate God’s loving glances. This unrepentant criminal looks in the face of Jesus and can see only the projection of his self-hatred. He has not yet allowed God’s perception of him to penetrate his defenses.
We are, all of us, hanging on the cross next to Jesus as we enter Holy Week. That cross takes different form at different times in our life. Perhaps for you, the cross is a life-threatening struggle with addiction that spirals down again just when you think you’ve hit bottom. Perhaps it is a painful divorce that turns everything you thought you knew about yourself and your beloved upside down. Perhaps is it an unrelenting chronic illness, or simply the uncertainties and gradual losses that come with age; the fear that comes with losing control of our body and of our life.
We all have our crosses, our dire moments, when we despair of love and of life. But no matter how low we have gone, no matter how dark our night, it is precisely here, on the cross, that the most powerful transformation can happen. God loves you, right here, right now, as one whom God enjoys, whose joy brings God joy. There is Resurrection on the other side of the Cross. If you can but find the courage to cry out, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom!,” the response will be, will always be: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Amen.