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And he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And He said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The road to the cross has been christened by Christian tradition as the Via Dolorosa, the way of pain and grief. The road begins at the fortress of Antonia and winds its way through Jerusalem about one-half mile to just outside the northwest wall of the city. It is this path that He treads in His final steps before Jesus comes into His kingdom.
But His is no ordinary coronation procession. He is not astride a proud war horse, nor carried on a palanquin by four strong men, but He stumbles beneath the burden as He carries His own cross. He is not accompanied by a band of loyal and chivalrous knights, but a couple of convicted criminals, rebels. The soldiers are not there to protect Him, but to see that He is put to a horrible death. The crowd does not greet Him with cheers but tears as He is led out of the city. Jesus had Himself wept over the city of Jerusalem. Now, He tells these daughters of Jerusalem that their tears would be better shed for themselves than for Him.
The reason for the tears is the impending destruction of Jerusalem. That will be a time when children are no blessing from the Lord; rather, the barren woman will regard herself as blessed because she won’t have to witness the suffering of her child. That will be a time when people again cry to the mountains and hills for protection from violent destruction as they did in the days of Hosea the prophet. Jesus’ concluding question is based on proverbial wisdom: if green wood burns, just think what blaze will result from setting fire to dry wood. If Jesus, who is innocent, suffers so terribly, what kind of suffering will befall guilty Jerusalem?
Jesus is crucified at the place called “the Skull” between two criminals. The Jewish historian, Josephus, speaks of crucifixion as “the most pitiable of deaths.” The Roman statesman and author, Cicero, describes it as “the worst extreme of torture inflicted on slaves.” Jesus endures the pain of having nails driven through His hands and feet before being hoisted into the air to die a slow death, usually from suffocation when the victim becomes so weak and filled with pain that he can no longer lift his torso up to take another breath.
It is customary to say that Jesus spoke “seven words” from the cross. This is based on compiling His statements from the four Gospels. No Gospel contains all seven of these words. In Luke, we find the first, second, and seventh. The first is Jesus’ prayer for those who are inflicting death upon Him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). They truly do not know what they are doing: killing the Son of God, by whose death the world is ransomed from sin.
Luke’s account of the crucifixion is striking because it contains one small moment of intimacy. It is a moment which is good for us to see and remember.
Crucifixions were not known for their intimacy, but rather for their cruelty. One of the purposes of public crucifixions was dehumanize the person being crucified, to strip them of any honor and make them an object of scorn. Literally stripped of all His clothing, Jesus—the sinless Son of God—hangs naked on the cross accused and condemned as a criminal and an enemy of God—the grossest kind of humiliation possible.
In Luke’s account, this is certainly true. Jesus is an object of scorn. The religious leaders mock Him as a Messiah unable to save Himself much less His people. The soldiers mock Him as a king, not receiving rich wine from a steward, but being given sour wine—the poor man’s cheap drunk—instead. Even one of the criminals joins in the act. When someone being crucified looks down his nose upon you, you can’t get much lower than that.
But Luke records one more interaction. A strange moment of intimacy between Jesus and the repentant criminal.
First, the criminal makes a confession of sin as he rebukes the impenitent evildoer. He admits he is being crucified justly. His death is deserved because of his misdeeds. Then, he makes a confession of faith. Jesus has done nothing wrong. His death is not deserved, and He will be vindicated. The criminal foresees a day when Jesus comes into His kingdom.
Having heard Jesus pray for God to forgive those who know not what they do, this criminal prays Jesus will forgive someone who now knows what he did. “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” The man’s request reveals a remarkable now/not yet tension in God’s kingdom. Now, on the cross, Jesus is King, and now His Word bestows forgiveness. Not yet has Jesus entered into His kingdom—of glory—yet Jesus’ word of forgiveness now opens the door for this dying evildoer to enter the not yet kingdom when it comes. And it will come that same day!
The catechesis of the penitent evildoer is brief, and his initiation into the life of Christ comes quickly. The dying “King of the Jews” who “saved others” says to this dying man, “Truly, I say to you, today, you will be with Me in paradise.” Jesus, crucified, is the source of forgiveness for all—even the worst, the least, and the last. With these words, Jesus invites the man to participate in this forgiveness forever.
Such intimacy stands out at a public execution. It is extraordinary because it is strange. But it also stands out because it is true. In this one small moment of intimacy, we see truth in the midst of the mockery. Here, we see a true sinner meeting His true Savior.
This should not surprise us, of course, because this is what we have seen through the Gospel of Luke. Jesus loves those who are lost, the marginalized and mocked, the disabled and disenfranchised, the hopeless and humiliated, the suffering and the sinner. These are the ones Jesus seeks out and saves.
When Jesus was presented in the Temple as a little baby, Simeon sang of God’s salvation for all peoples, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory to Thy people Israel.” When Jesus preached His first sermon, He offended His hearers by reminding them of Elijah’s mission of mercy to a Gentile widow and Elisha’s cleansing a Syrian of leprosy. In Jesus, God’s merciful mission extends beyond the bounds of Israel. A Samaritan leper falls down in thanksgiving before Him. A Roman centurion stands as an example of faith for Israel. Luke reveals the faith of those on the margins, the place at the table for the outcast, the love of God for the lost. In Luke, Jesus summarizes His mission with the words, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (19:10).
And so, at the very end, as Jesus speaks His last words, He reserves one word of promise for someone most unlikely—a criminal who repents. In mockery, people cry out for Jesus to save Himself. In truth, Jesus came not to save Himself but to save others. He came to save you.
On this, the Last Sunday of the Church Year, our Collect reads, “Lord Jesus Christ, you reign among us by the preaching of your cross.” Today, our Savior rules not in spite of the cross, but through it. He would not free Himself from the cross because by the cross He frees others; then and now.
Our world has changed. The Church has lost privileged status in our culture; it is viewed by many as restricting, bigoted, and discriminatory. And so, the culture no longer does the heavy lifting for Christin mores. Christians are no longer tempted to see themselves as powerful. They no longer set the cultural agenda. Instead, they have been set aside. They are not serious partners in cultural conversations. If they appear at all, it is as jokes on late night television or as dangerous figures fostering hate speech.
Yet, it is among the despised that Jesus comes into His kingdom and reigns. One by one, He gathers the marginalized and mocked, the disabled and disenfranchised, the hopeless and humiliated, the suffering and the sinner. These are the ones Jesus saves.
And so, today, God calls us to be servants of Jesus, a king who reigns by a personal word of welcome to the least. God invites us to have intimate conversations in a world filled with mockery and hate. To trust Jesus reigns whenever and wherever He extends a word of promise to the displaced and the disfavored, welcoming them home.
The world has changed, but God has not, and neither has His Word changed. In a broken chaotic world, there are plenty of broken people who need the healing message of Jesus Christ. The Church must see itself as “a company of recovering sinners.” The fields are white for the harvest. So, pay attention to the invisible people. Befriend your community. See people not as evangelism projects, but as neighbors to love and to show mercy. Each one is a precious soul for whom Jesus has shed His holy and precious blood. Remember: In Christ, we always work from a position of strength and plenty, not lack and weakness!
Jesus comes into His kingdom on the cross. He was crucified that we sinners might enter into that kingdom with Him. Because Jesus sacrificed Himself for us all, we have His word of absolution and the promise of being with Him in paradise. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.