Good Friday Tre Ore, Seven Last Words

Download or listen to The Second Word: “Today You Will Be With Me in Paradise”

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The “good thief,” we call him. Tradition names him “Dismas.” Mostly we think of him on Good Friday or when we’re arguing about whether people have to be baptized in order to be saved. (The answer to that question, by the way, is that if Jesus says you’re with Him, on the cross or in baptism, you are with Him.) Although this man hanging next to Jesus was neither good nor, probably, a thief, that’s how we characterize people, isn’t it? The rebel on the right is good; the one on the left is bad. As if we’ve forgotten that they’re both being crucified, which, except for Jesus, doesn’t happen because you’re “good.” Both of these men who are being crucified with Jesus are enemies of the Roman state, literally “evildoers,” probably insurrectionists like Barabbas. They are not nice or good, and this one confesses as much when he rebukes the other criminal: “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40-41, ESV).

We call him good because he repents at the end and asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into His Kingdom. And we all like happy endings. But we like happy endings if the bad guys get what they deserve, and the good guys are rewarded. Most of us do not like movies, for instance, where the murderer or rapist gets away. It offends our basic sense of justice. Perhaps we do not feel that way about this criminal because he is dying. He does not get to retire to some tropical island with the spoils of his crimes. And yet, Jesus promises him a tropical island of a sort. Or rather, he promises him something better: Paradise. The word that had come to apply to the Garden of Eden, that original paradise. And this criminal is the first one to be welcomed in after the crucifixion of Jesus. And that should offend our cosmic sense of justice. Or at least it should if we think of God’s forgiveness primarily in terms of good and bad. But, frankly, good people don’t need forgiveness. They just need a little help or guidance or coaching to channel their natural goodness. And we don’t want bad people forgiven; we want them punished (unless, of course, we are the ones caught red-handed; then we’re all for forgiveness). Now maybe we call him the good thief, not because he was good, but because he was certainly better than the guy on the other side of Jesus. That, at least, gives us something to cling to, because we’re certainly better than all sorts of other people. I mean, we’re in church in the middle of a Friday afternoon!

But if you want someone with whom to compare yourself, don’t look to the left or the right. Look right in the middle. What do we have that we have not been given? What have we been given that we have not wasted or distorted or destroyed? By what standard will we put ourselves in the good category with the good thief? If you’ve lived up even to your own expectations and ideals, you’re doing a lot better than I am. The fact is, there’s only one who is good in this whole story, only one who is obedient, only one who is faithful, only one who unjustly condemned. And if this is a story about good and bad, then on the one side of that line, there’s only Jesus; on the other, there is everyone else. The first criminal wants off the cross; he wants out of the suffering. The second criminal simply wants Jesus. He knows he should be right where he is, he knows what he deserves; perhaps he only hopes for some sort of servant’s job in Jesus’ new Kingdom. But Jesus claims him for His own. And so it is for you and me.

The cross to which this criminal is fastened is a mirror for us. He cannot move, he cannot amend his life, he cannot do better; there is no penance for him and he doesn’t even pray the Sinner’s Prayer. He can do nothing, so Jesus does everything. He asks for a minor favor from a King, and he is promised the unlimited favor of the King. He can give nothing, but Jesus gives everything. “What power, O robber, led thee to the light? Who taught thee to worship that despised Man, thy companion on the Cross? O Light Eternal, which gives light to them that are in darkness! Therefore also he justly heard the words, Be of good cheer, not that thy deeds are worthy of good cheer; but that the King is here, dispensing favours. The request reached unto a distant time; but the grace was very speedy. Verily I say unto thee, This day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise; because to-day thou hast heard My voice, and hast not hardened thine heart. Very speedily I passed sentence upon Adam, very speedily I pardon thee. To him it was said, In the day wherein ye eat, ye shall surely die; but thou to-day hast obeyed the faith, to-day is thy salvation. Adam by the Tree fell away; thou by the Tree art brought into Paradise. Fear not the serpent; he shall not cast thee out; for he is fallen from heaven. And I say not unto thee, This day shalt thou depart, but, This day shalt thou be with Me. Be of good courage: thou shalt not be cast out. Fear not the flaming sword; it shrinks from its Lord. O mighty and ineffable grace! The faithful Abraham had not yet entered, but the robber enters! Moses and the Prophets had not yet entered, and the robber enters, though a breaker of the law. Paul also wondered at this before thee, saying, Where sin abounded, there grace did much more abound” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture XIII, 31 [http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf207.ii.xvii.html?scrBook=Luke&scrCh=23&scrV=43#ii.xvii-p164.2].

Grace abounds. Jesus takes what He can get, and what He gets are criminals: adulterers, liars, thieves, fornicators, homosexuals, idolaters, bad parents, bad children, bad Christians. Welcome to Paradise. This is our Lord, crucified and bloody on a cross, and this is His Church, criminals all. This is our Lord, with the transgressors on the “bad” side of the line; this is His Church, altogether on the other side of the line. This is our Lord, risen and glorious among us to baptize, absolve, feed, and save. This is His Church, pure, holy, clothed in the white robe of His righteousness. Today, and every day, His promise stands: on a day when we will see Him no longer bloody and bruised, but still bearing the scars of our sin and His victory, He will say, enter into My eternal Paradise, in which is the tree of life (Revelation 2:7). He has granted us to eat from that tree, even Himself, and where He is, now and forever, is our paradise. For now, “May we in our guilt and shame still Your love and mercy claim, calling humbly on Your name: Hear us, holy Jesus” (LSB 447:5).

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 4/13/11

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