32 Two others, both criminals, were led out to be executed with him. 33 When they came to a place called The Skull, they nailed him to the cross. And the criminals were also crucified — one on his right and one on his left.
34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” And the soldiers gambled for his clothes by throwing dice.
35 The crowd watched and the leaders scoffed. “He saved others,” they said, “let him save himself if he is really God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” 36 The soldiers mocked him, too, by offering him a drink of sour wine. 37 They called out to him, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 A sign was fastened above him with these words: “This is the King of the Jews.”
39 One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself — and us, too, while you’re at it!”
40 But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die?41 We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
43 And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
The crowd watched and the leaders mocked. Luke has gotten back as quickly as he could to showing that most of the people Jesus encountered responded favorably to him. But more than this is going on here. One criminal mocks Jesus but the other puts his faith in Jesus. Get that. He puts faith in a man who is in the middle of being executed. We aren’t told specifically what elicited this faith response. Why would he trust Jesus? What made him think this guy dying next to him was about to come into a kingdom? His use of the word ‘kingdom’ suggests he had heard Jesus teach before, but how can this look like the kingdom is actually coming and not being thwarted?
I think the answer is both more simple and more disturbing than we typically want to consider, even (maybe especially) those of us who call ourselves Christians. What the criminal saw here was nothing other than the fullness of Jesus revealing God’s nature to humans. We tend to think of God’s nature in terms of perfections, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present, stuff like that. If we were God, that’s how we would be. But those are ideas about God that we bring to the table. They are our preconceived notions of what a God would need to look like in order for us to acknowledge God as God. But we have no idea what God is actually like just by thinking of the biggest, most powerful, most perfect being we can imagine. We can’t imagine very far or very creatively, but only within the framework of our own limitations. We look for a God who is a mirror of our own extended imperfections.
But what stares back at us is a man on a cross. The cross is not an exception to the rule of being God. The cross isn’t this weird thing that happened one time to God, or some unpleasant thing God had to do because we humans had screwed things up so badly. The cross is the central revelation of who God is. We talk about Jesus having both a divine nature and a human nature, and we talk as if ‘nature’ names something equivalent in both cases, some underlying reality or similarity between the two. But there isn’t any underlying equivalency. We think we know who God is and what God is about, and what God is like – but the cross confronts us in all of our presumption. Jesus is the Son of God, fully God and fully human, and the lamb slain from the foundation of the world. The cross wasn’t God’s Plan B, this was the plan all along. This is who God is. Everything we think we know about God has to be brought and placed at the foot of the cross, because all of it is only holds truth in relation to the most central, foundational truth of the God who is crucified.
Keeping this perspective is important if we are to understand what Jesus says here. “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” This can sound to our modern, Western ears like Jesus is just making a nice gesture. Of course they aren’t culpable. As Jesus points out, they don’t know who he is and they are just following orders, so they don’t bear any responsibility anyway, right? But that is not what Jesus is saying at all. This is one member of the Trinity talking intimately to another member of the Trinity, pleading for his executioners. The fact is, we never know what we’re doing when we sin. Understanding sin as sin only happens after the fact as by grace we come to understand what we have been saved from, when we understand that our sin has been dealt with by this cross and is always dealt with by a cross. Jesus shows us that God is cruciform – that forgiveness is what constitutes his kingdom.
Jesus also shows us that his followers will be cruciform as well. They will die to sin, die to self, die to the world, and thereby gain the kingdom. Again, this is not a one-time bit of unpleasantness to get through. The way of the kingdom is the way of the cross. This thief shared the same experience as all of the apostles and really of every follower Jesus has ever had. We celebrate the martyrs because the cross gives their sacrifices meaning. They exemplify the cruciform nature of following Jesus and give us courage to take up our own crosses and follow as well.
Jesus has prayed for us. He has asked the Father to forgive us of our sins. He invites us to take up our crosses and follow him. On the way to the kingdom. On the way to paradise.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale HousePublishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.