‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’
Here we witness the encounter of Jesus and the two thieves that are crucified alongside him. Both criminals would have seen the particular attention that Jesus drew from the religious leaders and leading men of the city. They may have already heard of Jesus before they found themselves crucified alongside him. If not, then the insults from the crowds along the Via Dolarosa to Golgotha and now from the gathered crowd and passers by would certainly have made it clear that this Jesus claimed some divine kingship and power that was the reason for his unjust crucifixion.
One of the criminals decided to join in and berate Jesus as well. Maybe he was half driven mad by his agony but then again if you did have some divine power wouldn’t this be the time to use it? Surely no-one would stay in this place of torture if they could get out of it and if they could get out of it wouldn’t he free us as well?
The second criminal is much more sober in his response to Jesus. Crucifixion is a long slow death and this criminal would have had time to reflected on his journey and ask ‘how on earth did I end up here?’ He seems to have understood that although he might identify the role of others that contributed to him ending up being crucified he himself played his own part. It may have been the accumulations of a number of small but wrong decisions and actions but he is aware and admits his own faults and failings that have led to this place. He has also become convinced, if of nothing else, of Jesus’ innocence.
He speaks because he cannot bear to hear anymore abuse directed to the innocent Jesus. ‘Have you no fear of God at all?’ He said. ‘You got the same sentence as he did, but in our case we deserved it: we are paying for what we did. ‘But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Without even realising it he rebukes the unjust and bears witness to Jesus before the gathered crowds. Does he believe that Jesus is a king when he then asks Jesus, ‘remember me when you come into your kingdom’? Certainly true nobility is not found in royal robes but in a silent dignity, wisdom and an ability to see and embody truth. After all God’s wisdom is so often hidden just below the surface of the seemingly ordinary. The thief certainly saw something in Jesus but maybe these were just kind words of charity to connect and let this ridiculed innocent man know he is not alone. In response Jesus tells him to his astonishment I am sure, ’today you will be with me in paradise.’
The second criminal is often referred to as the Good Thief with a sense of irony. Without even realising it this thief has pulled of the greatest heist in all history. He gets that which was not his by right, that which did not belong to him, and was not his to claim or posses. He is promised that which the heart of man desires above all things and drives all our passions – his entry into paradise. This prize comes to him when perhaps for the first time in his life he doesn’t scheme, plan, bribe, manipulate or expect. It come to him after he has acknowledge his sin, rebuked the unjust, borne witness to Jesus before others and reached out in an act of charity to another. Maybe we all need to become good thieves?
The two thieves and their response to Jesus, their dialogue with God, is maybe reflective of our own inner journey when we find ourselves at our own Golgotha. Sometimes but rarely are we totally innocent victims and often it is our own actions, mistakes and wrong choices that have led us to the place of our cross. We may indeed rant and rage at finding ourselves in this place of despair and desolation. However, it is only by honest reflection and acknowledgement that, unlike Jesus, we are so often masters of our own downfall. Only then are we able to see beyond the rage and discover that Jesus is there right alongside us. The Innocent One refuses to abandon me and continues to stay with me where ever I am, bears my sin, my pain and my folly. I am reminded of the Psalmist in 139/140 states: Where can I go from your Spirit? where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there also.’
Golgotha is unavoidable. It is the place where I am lost and further away for where I should be, at my wits end, powerless and trapped. Despair and darkness seem to be my only companions. Lifting my eyes and seeing Jesus, my folly and sin is open before him. I realise that I can claim no special privileges. All I can ask is that he remember me. Then and only then am I free to hear those most precious words, ‘today, you will be with me in paradise.’
Paradise is a Persian word that carries the image of a garden. The very last place that I’d expect to find the garden of paradise, restored Eden, is at Golgotha – yet it is here that the door to paradise is opened. The garden of Eden with all its beauty had at its centre the tree of Life. Adam’s disobedience made that tree of Life become the cursed tree of death for humanity. The Romans littered the hillside with a forest of crosses. At its centre, the cross on which Jesus hung, is that tree of cursed death. By his act of obedient love Jesus makes that cross of death become the tree of Life for us. It is only by the door of the cross that we are able to enter into the life of paradise. It is only by travelling to Golgotha ourselves, however reluctantly that we are able to hear the promise of Jesus ‘today you will be with me in paradise.’