Today, You Will be With Me in Paradise (February 28, 2021)
Luke 23: 39-43
Today, You Will be With Me in Paradise
The second phrase we will look at as we examine the Seven Last Words of Christ is the phrase that Jesus says to one of the thieves who are being crucified with him, “today you’ll be with me in paradise,” in response to the prayer of that thief “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
One thing to remember as we examine this interaction between Jesus and this thief is that throughout his ministry Jesus was associated with, and hung out with, sinners; with the low lifes of society: the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the sinners, the ordinary people, the dirty people. And this troubled the religious leadership because he went around calling himself a rabbi, calling himself a leader, and then he hung out with “those people.” He hung out with “them.” And that troubled the religious leadership. And it troubles religious leaders today when religious people, particularly other religious leaders, hang out too closely with sinners. In a lot of ways things have changed in 2000 years; in a lot of ways things have not.
One thing we must remember is that our Lord, who we’re supposed to be following as an example as disciples and are supposed to be living up to what he did; he spent all his time with sinners, and not with saints. And more importantly I think, he acted in ways where the sinners were comfortable hanging out with him as a rabbi. And he did it not by joining them and sinning. We know Jesus was sinless, and yet the sinners were comfortable being around him. How did he do that? Well it’s oversimplification of course, but one way would be that he was non-judge mental. He didn’t sit there and point out all their sins to them, he didn’t sit there and demand they change. He met them where they were; treated them like human beings. They were healed by his presence, by his example showing a new and different way, and not by his rebuke.
Of course it’s not quite as simple as that, but that’s the best I can do to put words to it. It reminds me of generational differences. That sometimes you have a group of young people, and sometimes an older person can come into that group and fit right in, he’s just a cool guy to them, and the young people have no problem with the person being there. And sometimes the older person comes in that group and the kids are like “Ew, who are you? Get away from me.” Sometimes the 67-year-old goes into the bunch of 25-year-olds and it’s fine; and sometimes it isn’t. It’s that weird thing. To put it in church language, sometimes the 30-year-old is the horrible choice for youth pastor because he’s going to drive everyone away, and the 67-year-old is actually the one you should be choosing. That was the case here. Jesus, the non-sinner, goes into a bunch of sinners and is accepted as one of them. They’re seen because he saw them.
It’s likely relevant that the thief here only speaks up, he only recognizes Jesus as the King (or at least as one who has a kingdom), after hearing Jesus say “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Let’s take a look at the thief. Who is this thief? What else has he done? The word here in Greek is actually a word that denotes more of like an armed robbery then say petty thievery. The word here in Greek is actually the same word used earlier in Luke during the parable of the Good Samaritan to describe the people heading down the road who assault the man and leave him for dead at the beginning of the parable. That’s who we’re dealing with; that kind of person. And that’s who Jesus forgives. What does his forgiveness mean for us in our time? What do you think about that kind of person, and how do you treat that kind of person? Do you hang out with them? Do you give them another chance? Give them a “7 times 70th” chance? Do you forgive them? I don’t know the answer to whether you should or not, but I know Jesus does.
This thief prays, after recognizing who Jesus is, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He actually declares Jesus to be innocent. He chastises his friend for not recognizing who Jesus is in that moment. And then says “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And this “remember me” has the connotation of “deliver me.” This isn’t a thing of like “hey, you know it’d be great if you sent a birthday card once in a while” kind of remembering. This is deliver me, help me, when you get into your kingdom. It was the idea that God “remembered” Noah, or Abraham, or “remembered” Israel in the wilderness, and therefore delivered them.
This is a prayer that’s full of faith. This may be more full of faith, more of a sinners prayer, than the Sinner’s Prayer itself. It’s full of faith; faith that a Jesus will be able and powerful enough to remember the man, to deliver the man, even after death. Yes, after the man is dead, but also after Jesus is dead. There’s a lot of faith in this passage.
But also, this is a prayer that has a faith that not only will Jesus be able to remember him, but will care enough about him to deliver him. That is a level of faith in who Jesus is ,and the kind of person Jesus is. But it’s not a prayer that this man believes himself to be redeemable or forgivable in that moment. He doesn’t say “Jesus, forgive me;” but rather just “remember me, deliver me. I know I’m going to hell, I know I’m going to Gahanna, I know I’m going to the place of the unrighteous. Deliver me from that place Lord when you come to your kingdom. Remember me.” He doesn’t believe himself to be redeemable, and yet what he receives is immediate forgiveness: “today you will be with me.” Not in Gahanna, not in hell, but in paradise. Because that’s who Jesus is.
Let’s talk a little bit about the words I just used there. What is the paradise that Jesus is talking about here? There are a lot of different theories about it. Some have said that Scriptural Paradise is a restored garden of Eden, Paradise is heaven, Paradise is any number of things. But I usually view it in this passage as one of the Jewish understandings of the afterlife. This was an idea that all souls went to the underworld, or the Greek word for that would be Hades, and all souls go there. And once souls go there, then they’re separated out. The unrighteous will go to a place called Gahanna, which was named for the landfill of Jerusalem. This was the place where they threw all their trash, including the trash by the way from the Temple, all the refuse from the sacrifices at the temple. They threw it all in this alley that they called Gahanna. And it was burned there, and it smelled horrible; there’s fire and sulfur in the air. And they named the place where the unrighteous go after that valley. Kind of gives you an idea what they thought would happen there. It was a place of torment. And then the righteous would go to a place called paradise, where it was better than it was on earth, and there they would wait for the final judgment. So this was where people like Abraham, and David, and Moses were, there in paradise, awaiting the final judgment.
Whatever Paradise is, I’m confident that Jesus, as he talked to this man, was saying that that very day he would be with Jesus in a place that is better than this. It’s better even than 2021 Earth, this place where the righteous will go when they die. The righteous. Righteous, you know, like this armed robber.
When you put it like that it really turns the world on its head doesn’t it?
Of course, the other thief that is crucified with Jesus does not receive this phrase. He gets a different response from Jesus. I admit that I have always been fascinated by the people who fail in the Gospels, the ones who don’t do what the righteous “should” do, the ones who are the villains. I always wonder what made them tick; yes to try to avoid whatever pitfall they fell into, but also I wonder what really they were thinking, what they were doing, and is there some way that maybe they weren’t quite as bad as it looks on its face. This thief is no different. Even after Jesus reveals himself in forgiving the people around him, reveals himself enough that the other thief is able to see who Jesus is; this Thief continues to yell insults at Jesus. Even as he hangs on the cross, he continues to bully this man. Maybe he just had a really, really hard heart. That’s certainly what it looks like on its face. Or maybe he thought Jesus was the Messiah too, but just that other kind of Messiah: the one who would militarily defeat Rome. And if he was going to do it, he needed to get a start on it since Jesus was on the cross! Get those legions of angels down now to take him off the cross! And, if he did it quick enough, then maybe he could take the thief off the cross too.
There are moments where our own understandings, our own religiousness, our own saintliness gets in the way of the Spirit speaking to us. Even if that’s not this story, it’s an important story. I wonder, what would Jesus have said to that other thief if he had prayed a prayer similar to “Jesus, remember me?” What would Jesus say to you if you prayed that prayer?
Jesus came to seek out and save the lost. Those are his own words. He said the healthy don’t need a doctor. That’s why he came. And so he did: he sought to seek out and save the lost throughout his life, and even through his death. We would do well to examine what he did, and how he did it. And we would do well to figure out if we are the seeker, or one who is being found. For we are often both throughout our lives, but what are you right now? What is Jesus doing with you right now? Think about that this week. And may you have peace. Amen.