As this Easter approaches, my thoughts have been turning often to a minor character in the familiar story. Every scene of the incredible drama – the garden, the temple, the palace, the tomb –offers us different personalities responding to Jesus in every way imaginable. Among them, one who I maybe haven’t paid enough attention to, one whom the scriptures stop just briefly to look at before moving on: the condemned man who took Jesus for his Lord while hanging beside Him on a cross of his own.
It’s impressive how little this man has to commend him as a potential follower. By all appearances he is fallen almost as low as one can – stripped and humiliated, hung up to be reviled by all who pass by before dying the most shameful and agonizing death in the Roman repertoire. And not even he denies that he’s earned this treatment by his life up to this point. The word robber, used to describe the two criminals crucified alongside Jesus, means not merely a thief but a violent man, a shedder of blood. John uses it of Barabbas, who we are elsewhere told is a murderer and an insurrectionist. The men executed with Jesus may have been guilty of similar offenses; fomenting rebellion against Rome was a common way to get oneself crucified.
This robber, whose name we aren’t even given, seems to be repentant now at the end, but how much is repentance worth when the power of acting, of doing either good deeds or evil, has ended? He is literally nailed to a post. He won’t be doing anything else in the few hours he has to live, but try to keep breathing. However ardent and sincere his newfound faith, he’s not going to have the chance to show it through serving others, or forgiveness, or generosity.
When very shortly he steps into eternity, he’ll have no works of righteousness to set against his earlier wickedness. He has nothing whatever to offer as a new follower, except that one thing he gives. His trust, complete and undivided.
The robber acknowledges his own guilt, his fitness for execution, telling his fellow criminal that they’ve been sentenced “justly,” and that “we are receiving the due reward of our deeds.” And then, turning his face as best he can toward the figure on the center cross, he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. “ That’s all. In just two sentences, he says, in effect, I’m a sinner that deserves nothing better than shame and death, and, Jesus I believe you can help me – will you? And the incredible, beautiful answer is “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
I don’t see any evidence this robber could have impressed anyone with the breadth and completeness of his doctrine. He likely could have made nothing of words like justification or atonement. He just knew enough to say I believe you can help me, I know I don’t deserve it, but will you accept me? And this simple, childlike faith from a hardened criminal turns out to be the only thing that was needed. The other, mocking criminal demonstrates how easy it would have been to dismiss the Christ at this moment. Thorn-crowned, naked, in tatters from the scourge, the spittle of Jew and Roman alike mingling with the blood running down his ruined body, Jesus must have been the only person on earth who looked lower than the two robbers – in no position to help anybody. When the Lamb of God was most helping us, He least looked like it.
By grace the repentant robber was granted the vision to see past all of this, to see a king in truth where even the scribes and teachers saw only an impotent pretender. And as they hang there bleeding, Jesus assures him, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Today. There is not much more to endure. And He places “you will be with me” before being in Paradise, because Jesus is taking this man unto Himself, because ahead of all the glories of Heaven is the togetherness Jesus is welcoming him into, that He will embrace this lawless thug and present him to the Father as a friend, a brother. In the face of approaching death, this robber found Life Himself, and though he received no visible baptism, no bread or wine of Communion, the Life entered into him.
By the time the soldiers broke the robbers’ legs to hurry along the execution and let their hanging weight stall their lungs, Jesus had already gone on ahead and was there to welcome the man with loving arms.
Imagination fails me here.
Here, where the story doesn’t end but begins, I can’t quite see the face of the man who was once a robber, as he looks again on the One he hung next to just a moment ago – a world ago. Did he fall down on knees finally able to bend before his Lord? How much like a king, and more than a king, Jesus must have appeared then. And this man, who had just come through a form of execution so dishonorable that Roman citizens were generally exempt from it, was now a citizen of the Kingdom of God. The King’s hands still bore nail holes as he clasped for the first time those of the last friend He made before giving up His spirit. Did the once-robber’s hands also keep their punctures, I wonder? Is there some evidence yet of our sufferings, forever past, when we reach that country? Scars of hurts borne in love, worn like badges of honor? Or by His wounds are every trace of ours healed, all of our sufferings taken up into His own, so that no scars more remain but His?
No longer a robber, the man had been killed and born into his true self – stolen away from Death. He is nameless to us now, but he had a True Name that Jesus knew and spoke to him.
Not had, but has – for the man is there still, his capacity for joy in his Savior growing every day. It must have been with something almost like pain that he parted from the Prince of Peace again, however briefly, so that Jesus could meet with Mary Magdalene outside the tomb, and eat again with the brethren, and let Thomas poke his fingers into the holes in his God. We forget that what we call “the Resurrection” was for the multitude already gathered into Heaven another departure of their Beloved champion, so soon after His return, and taking his place among them the man who had been crucified had to await Christ’s homecoming. How dim and faint a foreshadow the palm-waving and cloak-spreading in Jerusalem must have been of the celebrating throngs who welcomed the crucified and living Jesus into His Heavenly capitol. And how they must have watched with anticipation the reactions of Mary, of Peter, of Thomas. How they must thrill with anticipation even now, for the great things to come, the things foretold and the things still hidden. It is easy to think of Heaven as a static place of completion, but I think that even when all desire is fulfilled, we will have more to anticipate than ever.
These then are the two things I want to remember this Easter. One, that when I feel like a failed servant – like I haven’t done much for God and am not likely to do much better if given more time – to remember the wretched felon who never won a soul for Christ, whose name and deeds no one on earth extols, and who was accepted without hesitation by Jesus and is with Him still. To remember that what’s needed is to say I know I don’t deserve it, but I believe you can help me – will you? The rest is His work to do in me, and when my vision is clearest, I see that He is doing it.
And two, that Resurrection is not a one-time event that happened two millennia ago, or that will happen at some unknown point in the future. Resurrection is the constant condition and action of the Kingdom of God, Life swallowing up Death. Aaron’s staff flowered, dead wood producing blossoms and even edible almonds – a sign of things to come. Elijah was in the business of raising the dead centuries before Jesus of Nazareth was born, and Paul picked it up after He ascended.
The robber’s being born again during his execution was a Resurrection, and my second birth was no less.
Because of that most outrageous work of Christ’s which the robber witnessed from just a few feet away, Resurrection is the dawn that Creation is being forever steered into, and what was dead will be flowering into more and yet more Life when a New Jerusalem descends overflowing with living water, and we people a city lit by Christ’s face and whose foundations are the strength of His love.
The featured image is (c) Julie Jablonski for The Cultivating Project.
Matthew is fascinated by the use of story to create experiences that awaken us to powerful, redemptive Truth. Several years ago he took up a quest to own and read every book ever published by C.S. Lewis. He shares his home with his wife and daughter, four cats, and a smallish serpent who has thus far never endorsed the consumption of prohibited produce.
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