Jesus and the Criminal
Jesus and the Criminal
I have to admit, I truly struggled with today’s Gospel reading. It is not that the passage is particularly difficult or touched a nerve; it is just that as I read and re-read these verses, I just couldn’t see the message within the words. I had a bad case of writers block. This is a familiar passage and I have read it many times and have heard a number of sermons preached about it. But for some reason, I just couldn’t see what I was looking for.
Then, while stuck in traffic on my way home from work it struck me. It was as clear as could be. In our reading for today, Jesus was being crucified between two other men, two criminals. Luke doesn’t tell us much about those two men. This story is also written in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and John, however the conversation between Jesus and the condemned criminals only appears in Luke.
One of the criminals was deriding Jesus, saying that if he truly was the Son of God, he should save himself, and them. The second criminal rebuked the first.
So, here is this criminal, a man who obviously had not lived a righteous life, but instead a life of crime. He is called a bandit in the other Gospels. He had been arrested and condemned to die in what is quite possibly the cruelest way to execute a person ever devised by humankind, crucifixion. He was nailed through his hands and feet to a wooden cross. The cross was raised. He didn’t die quickly, but instead died a slow excruciating death. The people he knew, his family, his friends, and those he committed crimes against were all able to watch him die. It was intended to be a cruel, embarrassing way to be executed.
He admits in the passage that he deserved what he was getting; he had committed the crimes, and he deserved to be punished, he deserved to die.
The he spoke to Jesus, saying: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
We are not told if this man had met Jesus before. We do not know if he had ever been in one of the crowds who followed Jesus listening to him teach. We do not know if he met Jesus the night before while in prison, or if he walked to the place of the Skull with Jesus. But somehow, he knew who Jesus was.
Now it is interesting to note that Jesus didn’t ask him any questions. Jesus didn’t ask him if he knew and obeyed the Jewish Holy Laws. Jesus didn’t ask him if he knew or obeyed the Ten Commandments. Jesus didn’t ask him if he attended the Synagogue or gave to the Temple treasury. Jesus didn’t ask him about his religious life, or if he even had one. Jesus didn’t ask him if he was remorseful for what he had done. Jesus didn’t place any conditions or pre-requisites for the criminal to receive salvation. Jesus did not judge him by the way he had lived his life.
And that, my friends, is the Good News, not only in this passage, but also in the Gospels. God’s love and forgiveness, God’s salvation is offered to everyone, regardless of their past, regardless of how good or bad they have been, regardless of their faith. There are no pre-requisites. Anyone who professes Jesus as Lord receives his benefits.
This passage is very appropriate for today, for this Christ the King Sunday. But it also points out clearly that the Lord’s ways are not our ways. The criminal had committed a crime and had to be punished. He had to pay his debt to society. This is the way it was in ancient Israel, this is the way it was under Roman rule, and this is the way it still is in our own society. And while only a few crimes carry the death penalty, in many ways even minor offenders, are affected the rest of their lives. The punishment they receive may be for a specific amount of time, but once they are labeled a criminal of any type, they have difficulty finding gainful employment. Sometimes they have to return to a life of crime in order to survive, and the cycle continues.
People don’t trust them and don’t want to associate with them, lest their own image suffers. People don’t want them in their organizations, maybe even not in their Churches. But it is not just criminals who face the rejection of society. It is anyone on the fringes of society. It is homeless people, drug addicts, and people with socially unacceptable diseases. All of those people experience the same abandonment, the same cold shoulders, the same resistance to being accepted, and the same absence of forgiveness.
Jesus has called us all, not only in our vocations, but as his disciples. We have been called to stand with just such people, to love them as we love ourselves, to offer them forgiveness, and to tell them the Good News of Jesus’ love.
The criminal in our reading was not a disciple of Jesus, he had not been following Jesus’ teaching or following Jesus’ command to love his neighbors as himself. But in the end, the very end, he professed Jesus as Lord and asked Jesus to remember him when Jesus comes into his kingdom. He received salvation. Imagine how his life may have been different if he had a relationship with Jesus earlier in his life. Maybe he wouldn’t have been on that cross next to Jesus. Think about your own lives. How would they be different if you didn’t know Jesus? Imagine how knowing Jesus might help those on the fringes of society. Imagine how powerful it would be when they realize that God loves them, just as they are, and just where they are.
One of my former co-workers recently lost his son to suicide. I didn’t know him well and had never met his son. My niece was once his teacher. He was only 19 years old. Many young people are struggling with issues that deeply affect them. Some may turn to alcohol and drugs to help them cope. Some don’t know how to cope at all and take their lives. Jesus loves them, all of them.
Maybe they don’t know this. Maybe they feel they aren’t worthy of Jesus’ love because they haven’t followed all the rules, but Jesus loves them. Maybe they used to go to Church as children but have stopped. Jesus hasn’t stopped loving them. Maybe they are trying to cope by abusing alcohol and drugs. Jesus loves them. Maybe they have broken the law. Jesus loves them. Maybe they just need to hear this. Jesus loves them.
As Paul said in his letter to the Romans: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That means that being addicted, being a criminal, being depressed, or being bullied, cannot separate us from the love of Jesus. Jesus loves us all right where we are, who we are, and what we are. It is not just about whether we go to paradise when we die or not, it is also about how we live our earthly lives. When we recognize we belong to Jesus, we can walk in the light; we can experience the peace and joy in our lives that only Christ can give us. We are called to share this with others, especially those who are still walking in the darkness.
This story in Luke is a powerful reminder that Jesus doesn’t love only those who live their lives according to certain prescribed rules, but that Jesus loves all, even and perhaps especially those who feel unloved. Jesus, remember us when you come into your Kingdom.