Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
- Luke 23: 42-43
[Note: This reflection was part of First Lutheran Church of the Trinity's Good Friday service that featured 7 different speakers who gave reflection on the last seven words of Christ.]
I’m not much of one for pie-in-the-sky theology. I mean, why would God make the varying hues of a summer sunrise over Lake Michigan or the smell of lilac blossoms or the laughter of best friends—why do all that stuff if the world is only supposed to be a holding pattern for the next one?
These words of the crucified Jesus kinda strike me as promised pie-in-the-sky. It seems like final absolution that degrades all the life that was lived beforehand. Of course, in the midst of crucifixion, maybe all victims want is to forget this tortured life. After all, the thief to whom Jesus was speaking was not only slowly dehydrating and collapsing his internal organs; he seemed to be considering his entire wretched existence. Please, Lord, just get me the hell out of this cold, nasty, brutish, and short life!
Then again, Jesus was suffering the same things that the condemned people to his right and left were suffering. That’s not paternalistic absolution; that’s the ultimate solidarity. Jesus was literally speaking on the thieves’ level. Jesus had spent his life among poor, militarily occupied and terrified people. Jesus was just as naked and humiliated as the other two.
That puts Jesus’ words in a different light, and 1st century people didn't understand “paradise” the same way we do today anyway. As a pharisaic Jew, Jesus thought of paradise not as an eternal escape, the ultimate vacation get-away, but it was a place for divinely justified people to wait for the earthly resurrection. The kind of resurrection Jesus meant was the kind that the prophet Isaiah talked about: eating the fruit of one’s own labor rather than working as wage-slaves; living in safe, dry lodging instead of under bridges when they've been evicted; raising kids that can learn about all the beauty of life rather than being shoved about for the benefit of corrupt politicians.
And Jesus told this thief at his side that they will be together today in this place. That phrase seems to me like Jesus was inviting this condemned guy to come home to meet his folks. But, no, it’s even more than that. This convict simply asked Jesus to “remember” him in that resurrection-world—because obviously he won’t be there—but I think Jesus takes it even further. I think Jesus, by telling the criminal that he’d be with him, is saying that this criminal will also be part of the resurrection-work that brings the resurrection-world.
Instead of an immigrant doing day-laborer work in the yard, the immigrant is building Solomon’s temple. Instead of a homeless person dragging oozing, blistered feet to Catholic Charities, they are directing the Thanksgiving dinner for the whole family. Instead of the hardened gang-banger selling dope in the park, he coaches Little League teams for neighborhood kids.
When we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, what kind of kingdom do we pray for? Is it a balcony view of all those sinners’ suffering like Tertullian talked about, or is it taking up the cross for the resurrection-world?
So tonight let us grief for a world that locks up teenagers for an ounce of weed, but then let’s get to the resurrection-work of being with me. Being with you. Being with your neighbor. Being with Jesus.
And we’ll be together today.
|Want an example of resurrection work? Check out CeaseFire Chicago, the nonprofit |
organization that was featured in the documentary The Interrupters.