The penitent thief
Liz Stuart, 10 April 2020
Psalm 22: 1–20; John 19: 1–42
Who were you, Criminal? The Romans did not crucify just anyone. They reserved it for those they despised most – slaves, disgraced soldiers and enemies of the state. Which were you? A slave who killed his master? Perhaps. A soldier who had deserted? Perhaps. More likely an enemy of the state. Perhaps you were part of the resistance movement? Did someone betray you? Did a plot go wrong? What happened that you find yourself writhing on a cross, slowly suffocating, and screaming in agony, helpless against the scavenger birds and dogs? Perhaps you had hopes for one you find yourself next to, who came into Jerusalem as the prophet Zechariah had foreseen the Messiah arriving, ‘Lowly and riding on a donkey’. Did you think the time of deliverance had come and in the febrile atmosphere of the Passover did you strike? Did you kill? Did you think it was all over for Rome, all over for the oppression and exploitation of your people? God had finally acted. Perhaps that is why your mate is so confused: ‘Are you not the Christ?’ He pleads, ‘Save yourself and us’.
Who were you, Criminal? As you are rendered completely powerless by the power you longed to thwart, humiliated, degraded, reduced to a spectacle, why do you not share your friend’s bitterness? Perhaps you realised yesterday that Jesus was not the Messiah come to overthrow Rome. Perhaps you know there is no point, you know that death is near. Perhaps you just heard Jesus’ words, ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do?’ and they broke your heaving heart open. Perhaps you shifted yourself, every slight movement agony, and looked into the face of him who had just forgiven those who had nailed him to a cross. And perhaps in those eyes, growing cloudy now, you saw something – glimpses of a reality so wondrous, so desirable, so Him – that you realised it was all about him after all, but not in the way you had thought, and not in a way you can now grasp.
Who were you, Criminal, that you say to him, as the Greek suggests, again and again, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’? History will label you ‘the penitent thief’ but you do not ask for forgiveness; you do not even ask for inclusion in that kingdom you spied in those dying eyes – you ask only for remembrance.
Who were you, Criminal, that you should receive the extraordinary promise, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with in Paradise’? Is that what you saw in those eyes – creation restored, a garden of delight? And now as you hurtle towards oblivion you are scooped up by unconditional love?
Who are you, Criminal, dying, broken, disastrous, sinful, yet straining towards a reality you can glimpse but cannot comprehend?
Who are you, Criminal, dying, broken, disastrous, sinful, yet straining towards a reality you can glimpse but cannot comprehend, personified in a man just like you, dying just like you and yet so different from you?
Who are you, Criminal? You are me, and I am you, and we are one prayer: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.