Today, we encounter the so-called “Second Word of Jesus” from the cross. It is one of the most astounding, unsettling, and encouraging verses in all of Scripture. Even as it energizes theological debate, the “Second Word” fills us with hope.
Jesus was crucified between two criminals. (The Greek of Luke 23:32 identifies them as kakourgoi, literally, “workers of evil.”) When the leaders who crucified Jesus mocked him as a failed messiah, one of the criminals joined in: “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!” (23:39).
But the other criminal did not follow suit. Rather, he objected, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong” (23:40-41). Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom” (23:42).
Jesus responded to him with a stunning word of grace and promise: “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise” (23:43). The word paradise, from the Greek word paradeisos, which meant “garden,” was used in the Greek Old Testament as a word for the Garden of Eden. In Judaism of the time of Jesus, it was associated with heaven, and also with the future when God would restore all things to the perfection of the Garden. Paradise was sometimes thought to be the place where righteous people went after death. This seems to be the way Jesus uses paradise in this passage.
As you can imagine, the second word of Jesus has perplexed theologians for centuries. The criminal shows at most a half-mustard-seed’s bit of faith in Jesus. Yet, to the desperate thief who cries out to be remembered, Jesus offers a word of confident hope. “You will be with me in paradise.”
There are other times and places to figure out the theological implications of this statement.
Today, I want to underscore the extraordinary grace of God in Christ. We don’t have to pray perfect prayers for God to respond to us with favor. We don’t even have to have right theology or selfless motivation. Rather, when we call out with a mere speck of faith, God’s grace is poured out upon us in abundance.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Do you need to cry out to God today? What helps you to do this? What holds you back?
PRAYER: Lord Jesus, how I thank you for your amazing grace. I cannot begin to fathom it. How glad I am that I don’t have to in order to receive it.
Thank you, Lord, for hearing me when I cry out to you for mercy. Thank you for remembering me, even when I forget you. Thank you for the promise of being with you in paradise. Thank you for being with me right now, through your Spirit. Amen.
P.S. from Mark: I have written a series of devotions on the Seven Last Words of Christ. They are intended for Holy Week, but are just as useful in Advent. These devotions include some of my wife’s marvelous watercolor paintings of the Stations of the Cross.
P.P.S. from Mark: I have put up on my blog some photos of the places where Christians believe Jesus was crucified. There are two primary locations in Jerusalem that are held to be the actual place of the crucifixion. You can see both of these in my collection of photos of Jerusalem.