Last week we introduced our Lenten series on the Seven Words from the Cross. The second word in the tradition also comes from Luke. Let's look at this word in context:
39One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" 40But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? 41We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." 42Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.[a]" 43Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."
Here's a few thoughts that come to mind when I read this passage.
The first thing that stands out to me is that Jesus is found here hanging between two criminals, or "wrongdoers." In Mark and Matthew, they are referred to as "bandits." We are not just talking about "thieves," as it is typically put, which might be romanticized ala Robin Hood. No, these are violent criminals. They had to make enough trouble to get the attention of the Roman officials and their "make-an-example-out-of-you" form of punishment, crucifixion. Remembering this makes it all the more striking that Jesus is found with them. He has submitted himself to association with criminals. Of course, we've seen this trajectory all along in Jesus' life, as he eat with tax collectors and sinners and welcomes prostitutes into other people's homes. At here at the culmination of his mission he is found alongside the worst of the worst. He is in solidarity with sinners. The point for us as we reflect on the cross is to be reminded for whom Christ died. He came to seek and save the lost. Are there those whom we've deemed beyond the pale? Are we willing to see ourselves as truly lost and in need of redemption?
The second thing that jumps out at me is that the content of the other criminal's confession. He does not say anything about Jesus' identity as the Son of God. He does not discuss Jesus' Messianic status or his ability to save them from their predicament. He merely indicates Jesus' innocence. They, he admits, deserve their punishment. But he does not. He is innocent. He has does nothing wrong. He is punished unjustly, for he is just. This fits Luke's way of telling the story of Jesus, for upon Jesus' death the Roman centurion does not say "surely this was the son of God" as he does in Matthew and Mark, but rather says "surely this man was righteous." And throughout Luke-Acts emphasis is laid on the uprightness of Jesus and his followers by both Jewish and Gentile standards. Apparently it is important that Jesus is righteous, and the criminal is a witness to Jesus' righteousness. Unlike the sinners with whom he is found, Jesus is innocent.
(3) Solidarity + Innocence = Promise
When you add together the first two observations, you get the good news of the gospel: that he who knew no sin came among sinners for us that we might be called the righteousness of God. The one truly righteous one became the one true sinner, so that sinners might be made righteous. And so Jesus can turn and speak this promise to the criminal, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." The innocent one is with us sinners so that we sinners may be with him in the innocence of paradise. Sinners may come to him because he first came to them. His solidarity with us and his innocence for us are the ground of his promise to us.
- Does this line of reflection illuminate this word from the cross?
- What function does Luke's emphasis on the righteousness/innocence of Jesus have?
- What thoughts have you had about the criminals alongside Jesus?
- What are some additional observations that would add to, adjust, or go against this line of reflection?