Flanked on either side of Jesus are two men that Luke describes as criminals. We don’t know what they did, but if history tells us anything, these weren’t your run of the mill thieves.
Back then, crucifixion was mostly reserved for those who rebelled against the Roman Empire. It was a purposeful and gruesome public death designed to show others of the high cost of sedition. This is what the religious leaders accused Jesus of when they brought him before Pontius Pilot, the Roman governor of Judea at that time.
The two criminals knew exactly why they were up there on the cross. But only one seemed to know or care that Jesus was innocent. He didn’t join in with the others to mock Jesus, but instead recognized his wrongdoing. You may have noticed this man didn’t ask Jesus for forgiveness, just mercy. I guess he figured he was getting what he deserved.
Hearing the man’s plea, Jesus has compassion and assures him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Even has he was dying, Jesus remained faithful to showing the world what God’s grace and love is all about.
Whatever the man had done to deserve his death sentence, Jesus pretty much said it doesn’t matter. Those who return to God will be forgiven. And your past will be forgotten. This should be a welcome reprieve to any who believes they aren’t worthy of such a gift. But, honestly, who among us is worthy? The answer is none of us. And yet, all of us.
None of us are worthy because we live in a world where everything is transactional. Everything we do seems to come with a price. That’s the eye-for-an-eye, quid pro quo mentality that Jesus told us to forget about when he taught us to turn the other cheek.
I’m afraid we don’t see our worth in God’s eyes, because society preaches “you get what you deserve.”
But that’s not how it works in God’s kingdom. God makes us worthy because forgiveness isn’t about transaction, but transformation. God’s love for us is unconditional which literally means, “without strings attached.” It’s always there, free of charge, for anyone who wants it.
God is about transforming us – using love and grace to move us beyond what we’ve done to what we can become people who love like God first loved us.
So why do we waste so much time and energy believing we’re unworthy? Or why do we think God’s not big enough to redeem whatever we’ve done or left undone? Is it hard to believe we all can be with Christ in paradise?
If this passage tells us anything it’s that all who come to God will be forgiven. And all will be forgotten. Because we can’t carry our wrongs into paradise. There’s just no place for it there.
watch the message unfold here
In 1996, Johnny Cash remade the old folk song "Kneeling Drunkard's Plea." It’s about a man crying out to God at his mother’s grave. For whatever reason he didn’t make it home in time to say good-bye. In his dark, baritone voice Cash sang, “Lord have mercy on me, was the kneeling drunkard’s plea. And as he knelt there on the ground, I know that God in heaven looked down.”
Depending on how you see yourself this song, God could be interpreted two ways.
The first way is that God looks down upon the drunk in disgust. Then God picks up an index card and begins scribbling down all the sins this man has committed in his life. The card is handed to an angel who files it away until the drunk is brought before God in judgment. That’s one way of interpreting the Bible and Christianity. The other way is more like this.
God looks down on the drunk and sees a empty, broken soul in dire need of help. God feels his pain and has empathy. Hearing him cry over his mother’s grave, God is reminded of the tears that were shed at Jesus’ death. God knows the drunkard’s story because through Jesus God has walked with people just like him. People whose bad choices have made their life a living hell.
In hearing the man cry out, “Lord, have mercy on me,” God picks up a pencil and begins to erase the man’s index card.
Ever since Abel’s blood cried out from the ground, God has responded mercifully to our pleas.
This is what I see Jesus doing when the criminal asks to be remembered because this is how it works in God’s kingdom. Those who come will be forgiven. And all will be forgotten.
This is good news because, as most of us know, forgiving people who have hurt us is difficult to do. Forgetting what they did is even harder. But there are three crosses in this story. The one in the middle is the cross of Christ.
Until we truly embrace the heart and mind of Christ - who saw all people to be worthy of God’s loving compassion, then I’m afraid we’ll continue to make everything transactional. Once we see others as God sees us, we begin transforming ourselves and all of creation in the process.
I want us to think about this in light of the tragic news that has come from Colorado Springs today. In case you have not heard, there was another mass shooting, another hate crime towards the LGBTQ+ community.
How does one forgive a person who killed someone you love? How does one ever forget his actions when the nightmares continue? Between the rage of the shooter and the pain left in his wake, is Christ who is always loving and always forgiving and forgetting, even when we can’t.
In her book Accidental Saints, Nadia Bolz-Weber confessed how hard it was for her to recognize the Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza among those who were killed that day. But then she realized “that the light of Christ cannot, will not, shall not be overcome by that darkness. Not by Herod, and not by Adam Lanza. The light of Christ is so bright that it shines even for me and even for them.”
From the very beginning to the bitter end, Jesus proclaimed the good news of God’s kingdom where prodigals are forgiven, lost sheep are found, and people are redeemed and restored.
A kingdom where those who are condemned can claim God’s mercy and grace if they want it. A kingdom where all is forgiven. And all is forgotten.
Even on a cross, Christ shows us that God’s grace has nothing to do with what we did or who deserves it. But it has everything to do with God. And anyone who wants what God has to give. There’s enough for everyone – not just for those who recognize who Jesus is, but even for those who mock him.
As we move towards Advent, and towards the Christmas birth, we do so with the cross of Christ in front of us and the light of hope, joy, love and peace that illuminate from it. The cross, as brutal and ugly as it is, reminds us of just how far God is willing to go to forgive and forget.
In the space between these two words is Christ who continues to call us to live in Anamesa, to enter that space between those who are guilty and those who are not, and offer compassion and mercy to everyone just as God has offered it to us.
I believe this is the paradise Jesus invites us to join him in today. Yesterday has come and gone. But we are given this day to transform this space to become a place where love is powerful enough to make heaven and earth one again.
And in case you were wondering, in the final verse Johnny Cash sings, “Three years have passed since she went away. Her son is sleeping beside her today. And I know that in heaven his mother he sees, for God has heard that drunkard's plea.”
All who come to the Lord will be forgiven. And all will be forgotten.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year C. Vol. 4. (Westminster John Knox: 2010) pp. 332-337.
Bolz-Weber, Nadia. Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. (Convergent: 2015) p. 78.
Brewer, Todd. The Elusive Strangeness of Jesus. Mockingbird: Nov. 19, 2019. (Accessed 11/19/19).
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”