“Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise.”
Oh, the theological weight that has stood on these words! God’s economy is not even, measured, or fair by any worldly standards. No, instead the condemned sinner, literally in the very act of being deservedly punished for his crimes, appeals to a grace nothing in the history of the world or his life gives him context to understand. This wasn’t how it worked. Myth and religion and culture all said basically the same thing: life is all about reimbursement. Give to the gods, to the emperor, to the earth, respect or money or worship or performance, and if you’re lucky you will get back what you deserve. There was no happy ending, hardly even a best case scenario. As human, you do what you can to please powers so far beyond you, and hope to land on the side of better than most. Almost every culture had a story of the fall, but redemption had not entered the scene. Can you see it? Can you see the necessity of God’s first action, the irresistible drawing of grace? This man did not deserve to figure out the truth. A lifetime on the scales stacked against him; despised, no doubt, by the state which was killing him; probably unknown at all to the church, or, if he used to be known, even more hated for whatever this great failure he bore was. As unlikely a convert as Christ was a Savior.
It makes me wonder about his life. Had he heard of Jesus, finding himself drawn by something inexplicable to groups that were talking about Him in the market? Did he hunch in the back of the crowd on the shores of the sea, or the side of the mount, as Christ spoke His mysterious truth? Was he overwhelmed in those moments by a longing so strong it began to crack the edges of his hopelessness? Was he afraid to let go? Afraid to be disappointed again, and so he shook off the impossibility of hope with the brutal reason of reality? Have you seen my life? Perhaps he thought. There is nothing in it, or in this world, that whispers the possibility of a Savior. Have you seen what I’ve done?
It was a relatively small area, and I often wonder how far Jesus’ name had spread. But who knows? Maybe this man hadn’t been paying attention, too busy trying to survive to dream. Maybe this is the first he saw Jesus, the first he even heard of Him. Maybe Christ’s posture of humility was so different, so jarring, that even in the man’s despair it caught his attention. Maybe, as he watched the mockers, something tugged at his heart: What if it’s true? It can’t be…but what if it is? What if life is possible, even for me?
Whatever the story, however long it had been being written, hope had found its way in. Faith had found its way in, from the God to whom no doors are closed. Grace had found its way in, from the God to whom no soul is unreachable. And however much that man knew, the extent of his faith is not what merited Christ’s response. Hanging on that cross, completely without reason to believe, as the source of this hope hung dying next to him, he did the only thing any sinner needs to: he turned. He made the slightest, faltering step and grace exploded onto the scene: vast, unmeasured, boundless, and free.
Without a doubt, he did not fully understand the truth of who Christ was. Do any of us? But somehow, inexplicably, he had faith enough to believe that this man had a Kingdom. And he did understand the desperation of his own need, and from that appealed to the greatest hope he could imagine at that moment; Lord, remember me.
And knocking aside the scales of this man’s life, Christ spoke the only weight that matters: grace.
I think He said it immediately, and I think He said it with unmeasurable joy: Today, you will be with me in paradise.
Christ died first, Scripture tells us, while the soldiers had to break the legs of these other two. I wonder what the rest of those remaining hours were filled with for this thief on his own cross? Did his faith falter, seeing the One who promised silent and still? Did he begin to wonder, terrified as the earth grew dark and shook with quakes, who it really was that he had just appealed to? How did hope endure in those few moments before his inevitable death? I think it was the grace of Christ’s words that he clung to, the promise of eternity, offered the same to all who believe in His name. But this man – this man, in all his suffering – had a severe mercy very few get to cling to, for he knew how long he had to wait. Perhaps he whispered it to himself with every agonizing breath: Today. Christ said today. Today I will be with Him in paradise.
In Christ’s words to this man, whose name we do not even know, we see the unalterable truth that no matter who, no matter what, no matter how long has gone before or how long is left to wait for paradise; His grace is sufficient.