I haven’t written much this week. I’m going through some challenges in my personal life, and it just hasn’t been a good time to share. It’s easy to share when I’m up, things are going good and I have a reasonable hope they will continue to be better. It’s a little harder to share when I’m getting punched in the gut, each successive day seems to bring more challenges, and I’m not sure it’s going to get better.
So I’m going to look at Jesus on the cross with the two criminals on Good Friday, and I’m particularly fascinated by this verse – And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
How is it that Jesus could say to this man that today you will be with me in Paradise? They were hanging on crosses together on Golgotha. They were condemned men dying a slow, painful death of humiliation and torture for all to see. Three crosses standing there together. The man in the middle has sign above his head that read This is the King of the Jews. His is a special crucifixion.
There was nothing special about crucifixion during Roman times, it was a well worn method of terrorizing a populace used by the Roman government to maintain its grip in the population. It was not used for common criminals and petty thieves, or even for crimes like murder. In Rome, the crucifix was used to kill those who challenged the script given that Rome was in charge. It was used in revolutionaries, or on those who might claim a kingship for themselves. This is why Jesus was crucified, for claiming to have a kingdom which was to come and was not of this world.
But Jesus’ crucifixion was special, because in large part it had been orchestrated by the leadership of the Jewish population which Rome loved to use crucifixion to terrorize. And those rulers and leaders were out that day, watching Jesus be crucified, mocking him as he hung on that tree. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
The rulers, the soldiers, they are all coming together to mock the one with the crown of thorns and the “King of the Jews” inscription. In fact, the urge to scapegoat, to join in with the crowd that as it attacks the chosen scapegoat to put all its anger, shame and rage into is so strong that one of the men dying there with Jesus actually joins in. One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” Here’s a man with no hope for himself, dying on a cross, who just can’t resist the temptation to join the crowd in blaming Jesus.
But the other criminal condemned to die, he doesn’t join in. He instead defends Jesus – But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” Can you hear it? “You idiot!! You’re dying too!! And we deserve what we are getting. We knew the price for challenging the rule of Rome, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
But then he goes farther, much farther. And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Wow. And I mean, WOW!! How does this guy come to this revelation?? He turns to Jesus, calls Him by name, acknowledges that Jesus IS the king to come and asks (prays) for Jesus to simply remember me.
And how does Jesus respond? Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. Notice this – Jesus does not offer paradise to someone seeking their own personal happiness, but to a man dying on a cross with him. If our main goal is to pursue happiness and avoid suffering, we may avoid the suffering but we will never find paradise. Paradise is not found at the mall, or even on the white sandy beaches we mistake for paradise. Paradise is found on the Easter side of Good Friday.
The price of admission is death. It’s not by fighting for our rights and our old selves that we get to paradise. It’s through dying on the cross with Jesus, dying to our old selves to get to the resurrection Sunday that only comes after the suffering and death of Good Friday, that we get to paradise.
There will be suffering in our lives. There will be times when it all falls apart. I’ve been feeling like it’s all falling apart. And I’ve been much more like that criminal in the cross joining in the scapegoating of Jesus, angrily blaming and shaming. I’ve been taking control of the situation, making demands, making accusations. I’ve been eating from the tree of good and evil, thinking I can tell everyone how they’ve been evil and, finally, how I’m the good one.
But I haven’t simply looked and Jesus and said “Jesus, remember me.” I’m running around trying to figure out who I can trust, who in “my side”, being ticked off that it feels like no one is on “my side.”
And then the other night I remembered that there is only one person I need to trust. There’s only one person that I need to have on “my side.” I needed to remember that as I struggle, Jesus is right there with me in the midst of my struggle. The question I have to answer is, will I be the one who believes even in the struggle? Will I look over at Jesus in my struggle, in my pain, in my brokenness, and just say Jesus, remember me?
Jesus told the thief on the cross that today you will be with me in paradise. And what if it really is just that easy? What if the way to paradise is to get to the end of your rope, get to where it’s all falling apart, and just look over at the man dying on the cross right there with you and pray to him, Jesus, remember me? What if the way to paradise is to just give up control, stop trying to justify myself, stop trying to “prove” something, stop trying to fight for my rights, stop trying to “be right?”
The thief dying with Jesus had no hope. We all know in our heads that, yes, one say, a long time from now, I’m going to die. But when you’re hanging on a cross, crucified and bleeding, you pretty well know, I’m going to die today. That’s pretty much how this is going to end. And instead of forcing his will into the situation, demanding that God Save yourself and us!, the crucified man just says Jesus, remember me. He’s got no hope, but all his hope is in Jesus.
Doesn’t it make sense that if the way OUT of paradise is by NOT TRUSTING GOD (see Genesis 3, something about a snake, being like god and knowing good and evil), the the way back into paradise would be by trusting in God? Isn’t that even what Jesus does when he submits himself all the way through dying on the cross, and at the moment life leaves his body he exclaims “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” Luke 23:46 ESV.
The snake has been talking to me. He’s been telling me I know good from evil, right from wrong. He’s telling me I can fix it, me, I can know, I can change it. But I can’t. I need to walk away from that forbidden tree and approach that other tree in the garden. The tree of LIFE. Or as we better know it, the cross of Jesus Christ.
“And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? 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 justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.””
Luke 23:35-43 ESV