Famous Last Words: Welcome To Paradise

For the first word, click here.

Luke 23v39-43, CEB
One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, “Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die?  We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”

Jesus’ second word from the cross comes also from Luke 23. First, Jesus has offered forgiveness to his executioners; now, Jesus extends grace to another unlikely recipient. Jesus, according to the Gospels, was crucified with two others. How these two people are described differs between various translations of the Gospels. Sometimes they are called robbers or criminals or thieves or malefactors, but the fact is that Romans wouldn’t have crucified someone for stealing or basic criminal activity. No, crucifixion was reserved for specific crimes that were considered so heinous that they deserved such brutal punishment. Borg and Crossan call crucifixion a kind of public terrorism.

One group deemed to be worthy of crucifixion was runaway or insubordinate slaves. This functioned as both a punishment for their crimes, and as a warning to other slaves who may have been thinking about running away: this is what happens when you run.

The other group that would be certain to meet their end on a Roman cross were enemies of the state, particularly anyone who claimed the titles and power that were reserved for the Roman Caesar alone. This, too, served as a punishment and a warning: Don’t resist or challenge Caesar. It won’t end well for you.

The proper translation of this term used to describe those crucified alongside Jesus, then, would be rebel or revolutionary

This is illuminating, not only to the nature of the crimes of the men crucified with Jesus, but also for why Jesus himself is being executed on a Roman cross: they were, all three, considered enemies of the state. Jesus, after all, could not be the the King of the Jews. Caesar, and his client rulers like the Herods, were the real kings. For Jesus to proclaim God’s Kingdom, was treason. It was a direct challenge to the legitimacy of Caesar’s rule, and Caesar would not have any such thing. 

The words of this penitent rebel, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” may seem a bit absurd. This Jesus has a kingdom? He’s dying right beside you, we might say. Yet, Jesus’ followers came to see his crucifixion–this moment of shame and rejection and defeat–as the moment of his greatest glory. The cross is the moment that Jesus is enthroned (see the Gospel of John especially for this idea).

Somehow this rebel, likely a man who in some way had spilled Roman blood to land himself in this predicament, sees in Jesus, a man who preached nonviolence and peacemaking, a man who healed wounds instead of inflicting them, what a true King looks like.

And Jesus responds to his request, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.” 

Paradise is a loanword from the Persian language that means “a walled garden.” When a king wanted to pay a special honor to one of his subjects he would make them a “companion of the garden”, which is a reference to taking a walk in the garden with the king.

This dying revolutionary, essentially realizing that Jesus’ way of love, compassion, and grace are a better way to live than the brutality and moral bankruptcy of violence, asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. 

Being remembered matters to us. Recently my son and his grandparents had a picnic at the edge of the woods on their property. While they were there, they carved my son’s initials into a tree. Why do we do things like that? We want to be remembered. We want our lives to have mattered. And this dying rebel, whose attempt to make a name for himself failed, asks Jesus to remember him. 

Jesus does him one better. Not only will he be remembered, but there is a place for even him in the Kingdom Jesus is ushering in. Actually, what Jesus has said and demonstrated all along is that there is a place for everyone.

That’s what the Kingdom is all about. 

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