One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43 NASB)
One of the most poignant accounts of the crucifixion is the repentant thief on the cross. But the thief is also one of the strangest characters in the Gospel account as well. Keep in mind that we no nothing of why either criminal is being crucified, nor any other information about them. Only Luke has this account of the repentant criminal.
The crucifixion crowd seems to be focusing their abuse on Jesus. The chief priests are in attendance challenging Him to come down since He’s the “chosen one”. The people claim He’s saved others but cannot save Himself. The soldiers mock Him, now that they’ve finished divvying up His clothes. And now one of the criminals joins in the mocking, “save Yourself, and us.” Matthew and Mark mention the abuse Jesus receives from the criminals as well (Matt. 27:44, Mark 15:32), but they say both criminals abused Jesus.
In Luke only we have this lone criminal who, apart from everyone else, seems to actually understand what Jesus is doing. Imagine the scene, crowds watching the tortuous death of three men, hear the shouted insults, taunts, the soldiers mocking, and the mocking criminal. Then, the other criminal calls to the other, “Do you not even fear God?” He continues by confessing that they belong there but Jesus does not. This is a sharp deviation from the rest of the scene.
The criminal calling out his fellow and confessing his sin, then turns his attention to Jesus, and he says one of the most startling things in Scripture, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.” To really get how strange this is, keep imagining the scene. The painful death, the jeering crowds and soldiers all point to the immanent death of this same Jesus. And the criminal says, “…when You come into Your Kingdom.” How does this guy know the Kingdom follows after the cross? Not even Jesus’ disciples seemed to know that.
The theological genius hanging on his own cross next to Jesus knows that there is more to follow this horrific death. But He also knows to ask to be a part of it. No one else asked for that. The crowds, the soldiers, the priests, they all jeer the Savior. But this guy wants in Jesus’ Kingdom. This guy, probably as beaten and shredded as Jesus, doesn’t see the death of hope or of a problematic teacher. He sees one in Whom he hopes anyway, regardless of the impending death, in spite of the jeers and derision he hears. Who does that?
And Jesus replies even here, to this confession of faith, with a promise of paradise. Up to this point, that term hasn’t been used by Jesus. He’s used other terms for heaven, including “heaven”. And there are various teachings or understandings about this term, both from rabbinic teaching and early church fathers. Whatever it means technically, this criminal will be there with Jesus before the day is out. That much is certain.
I learn some really important lessons here. This criminal repented from his mindset to Jesus’ mindset at some point along the way. Defending Jesus, confessing his own just death sentence, he then seeks to be accepted by Jesus Himself. And, of course, he is accepted. Can I, at the darkest point of my life, when the horrible end is obvious, and hope is really gone; can I, then, believe in Jesus’ Kingdom? Let’s say it’s not actually that bad. Can I, then, believe in Jesus’ Kingdom?
These are fairly meaningless contingencies for me. I’m already in the Kingdom. The real lesson for me is how I behave toward those seeking entrance. Because people in those contingencies aren’t pretty, they aren’t typically “nice”, and they don’t “behave”. Life, for them, is scarce and hard. So, if they seek entrance, “Jesus, remember me…” then the plan is how to respond.
It doesn’t seem very wise, but Jesus makes His disciples “gatekeepers” of His Kingdom. If it weren’t for the fact we’re kind of stupid, we’d be a fine choice. Yet, in spite of our foolishness, Jesus uses us in this way. And those outside seeking to enter see the fools at the gate. And the challenge is to seek to be included among the fools, or seek another kingdom. The criminal sees the impossibility of what was happening, and sought to be included in the foolishness. Why not, he’s about to die anyway. What does he have to lose? Those closest to Jesus left Him. The ones you would expect to be there seeking entrance to the Kingdom are hiding or looking on from a distance. It’s the guy being tortured to death with Jesus who fearlessly asks for entrance.
So here’s to the fellow fools at the gate. Doff the funny hat as the riffraff enter our Master’s Kingdom. Smile and welcome them into the life of misfits where the fools are wise, and the wise foolish. Welcome to the happy village of idiots.
What’s your view through your knothole this morning?