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April 20

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’40 But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ 42 Then he said,’Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ 43 He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise’.
Luke 23:39-43

As a pastor and chaplain, I have been moved and sobered by being present at the bedside of literally hundreds of people as they flatline, the heart stops, and with a last gasp, they enter eternity. I have never walked away from such a room without being deeply affected by what I have just been present to. And at such times I often think of this dying criminal who in his last moments cried out to Jesus.

Actually, there are three men in today’s text who are dying. There are the two criminals dying for their crimes against Rome, and there is Jesus dying for the sins of the world. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark help us here with some added detail by telling us that both of the criminals had earlier joined the mocking crowd in blaspheming Jesus (Matt. 27:38-44; Mark 15:27-32). “Aha! they both jeered, “if you are the Christ, why don’t you save yourself and us?”

But then something happened to the second thief. What it was in life’s final moments that caused him to change his mind about Jesus, we do not know. Was it hearing Jesus pray forgiveness for those who crucified him? Was it Jesus’ gentle and sinless life in the face of such cruelty and injustice? There is nothing that would indicate that this second criminal was any better man than the other one. And what alms he might have given, or good works he might have done, must have been few. But as he felt life slipping away from him, he turns to Jesus. And in turning to Jesus, he prays one of the Bible’s shortest but most effective prayers: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

In the midst of Jesus’ own dying he answers the criminal’s prayer. And, as Jesus was wont to do in emphasizing something, he says to the criminal: “Truly, I tell you.” Yes! “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus  didn’t say that it would happen one day when his kingdom comes, or at the last day, but it will happen for him, today. Today you will be with me in paradise.

Many volumes have been written by those more learned than me about what Jesus meant by “paradise.” I will leave that to those wiser to parse and define. But Jesus does assure the dying man that he will be with Jesus. And that was surely more than enough for him to know – that he would be with Jesus!

I like to imagine that in Jesus’ final moments, as he is dying alone, mocked, and scorned by the crowd, I like to imagine that Jesus suddenly felt that he was not alone any longer. I like to imagine that Jesus felt the companionship of this dying man’s new faith in him.

I like to imagine that today Jesus is feeling the companionship of my faith and love for him!


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