Please note the fair use statement and tribute to Dr. Hoefler in the previous introduction.
Personal reflections on this passage can be found here.
The Second Word
One of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him saying, “If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.” But the other answering rebuked him. saying, “Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.” And he said unto Jesus, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” And Jesus said unto him, “Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)
THE GLORIOUS GUILT
Look at Jesus hanging there — hanging in utter loneliness on a criminal’s cross. How can he claim to be God and yet die like a forsaken thief? Surely this piece of wood, this crown of thorns, these three crude nails prove he could not be God — only a defeated man.
Where are his friends? Where are those who once called him Lord? Is there no one to challenge the apparent defeat of this dying one? Did his life make no impression? Does his death demand no expression?
Where are those for whom he did so much? Where is the leper made whole? Where is the blind man that now sees? Where is Lazarus fresh from the grave? Where is Peter the rock? Where are James and John? Why are they so silent?
Edmund Schlink, the German theologian, provides a penetrating insight into this perplexing problem of silence when he points out that it was the virtues of those near Christ that blinded them to the true meaning of the cross, and drove them into the dark shadows of Jerusalem to hide like cowards in silence.
First, the disciples failed to see the meaning of the cross because of their faith: they believed too much in Jesus to recognize the victory in this apparent defeat. While Christ was alive, they listened and believed his every word. They had seen his power at work. With their own eyes they had seen him cure and make whole, turn water into wine, walk upon the sea, even raise the dead from their graves. They were so certain of his unlimited power that they could not understand this total lack of it. The disciples were baffled and confused. They could only wonder where were the legions of angels he could certainly summon to his aid. Why did their Lord not still the angry, mocking shouts of the crowd as he had once stilled the waves of the raging sea? Why did Christ not take up the cross as he had once taken up the whip in the temple and drive all those unbelieving tormentors from Calvary’s hill?
You see, the disciples believed so much in Jesus that this, their greatest virtue — their faith in Christ and his unlimited powers — blinded them to the true victorious meaning of the cross.
Is this not many times our problem? We look at a world gone mad. We see the senseless slaughter of lives in wars that cannot be won — crimes motivated by cruelty. We watch the innocent suffer and the good die. And we cry out: Why does God not exercise his holy power and stop all this torturing tragedy in our anguished world? Does God not care? So we tempt, challenge and doubt God because we believe in him so much. It is our faith — our belief in God and his unlimited power — that blinds us to the true victorious meaning of the cross.
Secondly, there was the mother of Christ: she was too grief stricken to see the cross for what it was. Her greatest virtue was her love. Her head was lowered in sorrow. Her eyes were filled with tears. Her mind was held captive by the sordidness of it all — the torture, the pain — that this her loved one had to bear. It was this very love that blinded her to the true victorious meaning of the cross.
Is this not also our problem? Our religion is muscle-bound by emotion and sentiment. We retreat into our churches for cheap thrills. The dim lights, the gushy gospel hymns, the sweetly-worded sermon, the inspiring choir, the pretty robes, and poetic ritual of the sacraments all move us, touch us, get us in the mood. We know that God is truly present when a shiver runs up our spines. And to some extent this is good, because religion without emotion would be a cold and mechanical thing. But so very often this virtue of emotional involvement can blind us to the true victorious meaning of the cross.
Thirdly, there were the scribes and the Pharisees: their greatest virtue was their knowledge of God’s word. They knew the Scriptures too well to be taken in by the fantastic claims of this false prophet. This small-town nobody could not possibly be the promised messiah. This untrained upstart who challenged their riqhteousness and attacked their law, who threatened to destroy their holy temple, this was no Son of God. This was an imposter, a blasphemer!
These scholars knew their Scriptures far too well to be taken by this faker. So their greatest virtue — their knowledge of God’s word — blinded them to the true victorious meaning of the cross.
Is this not also our problem? Our religion is so often only academic ù:*concern born of intellectual curiosity. All we want are pat answers to life’s perplexing problems. The Bible becomes for us a sourcebook, a textbook, a do-it-yourself manual on how best to raise your children, or how to be successful and well thought of, or how to possess peace of mind. We know the Scriptures; many of us have memorized favorite passages because of their poetic beauty, or the narcotic comfort they give to us in times of stress. But this mechanical, practical knowledge of God’s word only blinds us to the true victorious meaning of the cross.
So, like those in Jesus’ day, we stand before the cross, blinded by our virtues — our faith too exclusively centered in power, our love too emotional and sentimental, our knowledge too academic and mechanical. We fail to understand that there can be no lasting joy except that joy be born in suffering; there can be no true victory except by way of sacrificial defeat; there can be no life of glory except through experiencing the reality of death. We want a Christ without a cross and a cross without a Christ. As a result our Savior dies alone, forsaken, and friendless, while we hide in the shadows of our doubts until Easter comes again and we can think on more pleasant things.
The amazing fact of the gospel story is that the only man to face up to the true victorious meaning of the cross was a thief, a man with no virtue, a convicted criminal who was not only guilty in the sight of his fellow men but guilty in the judgment of himself as well.
“One of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.”
Strange, isn’t it, that our virtue blinds us to the cross, and only guilt can open our eyes to see its meaning? Yet this is the divine revelation of this second word from the cross.
Of all the people at the crucifixion, this guilty unnamed thief saw the true victorious meaning of the cross. He alone caught the glimmer of victory in defeat. He alone caught the light of Christ the redeemer in all the darkness and doubt of Calvary.
Is there any doubt that he caught this vision because of his perspective? He was not standing safely on the ground looking up. He was not sitting in a pew listening. He was not perched in a pulpit preaching. He was on a cross! He was on his cross sharing the suffering and death of Christ. He knew the full and horrible reality of his guilt in contrast to Christ’s innocence. This thief was facing death, facing it honestly and frankly, facing the full frightening guilt of it. He was dying because he deserved to die, and from this vantage point of guilt — this glorious guilt — he caught the full victorious meaning of the cross.
We can never appreciate what Christ has done for us until we come to grips with who and what we are. The gospel is neither good nor new until we face the finality of our own death and realize that it is a fair judgment on our sin. Because of who and what we are, we deserve nothing less. Yet Christ our Lord, innocent before God and man, spotless lamb, pure and holy Son of God, hangs beside us, shares this guilty death because in this way and in this way alone he can save us from the finality of it all.
We can never appreciate the cross of Christ until we realize that on our cross of death we are helpless. There is nothing we can do! We deserve this fate! This is the beginning of the redemptive vision. This is the moment of our hope — our only hope. The moment when our faith in power, our sentimental love, our academic knowledge of God are nailed to a cross, our eyes begin to open. When we realize that we are nothing, deserve nothing, can do nothing, this is the moment when our blinded eyes are opened wide and we see into the very heart of God and know that he who hangs upon a cross is forgiving love that conquers all.
We must not leave this word, however, without noting one more thing. Look carefully, if you will, to the prayer of this saintly thief. He prays: Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. He does not ask to escape the cross. He does not pray to be taken down from the guilty consequences of his sin. He does not ask to be saved from the cross but by the cross: he cries out, “Remember me!”
It is an easy thing to confess our guilt when we think that by so doing we can escape the consequence of our sins. It is an easy thing to share Christ’s cross and sacrifice everything for him, if we know that by so doing we are going to get in return something far greater than what we are giving up.
Observe, however, that the thief does not ask for riches or authority in the life to come — as the disciples had done and we so often do — the thief asks only, remember me. Such a request can come only from one who has been blessed with a vision — a vision of the victory of the cross bridging the gap between God and his people, healing the broken relationship of the divine and the human, bringing each of us into the very presence of the loving and forgiving God.
So often we cling to the earthly comforts and rewards of this little world. With our sweaty hands grasping our cherished possessions, we ask in anticipation of getting more: “Tell me, Pastor, what will heaven be like?” We want guarantees, glowing and exciting details of the bounty and beauties of heaven. Because our insatiable desires for comfort and wealth extend over into the world to come, we want the assurance, the certainty, that no matter what we have to give up here, be it cottage or castle, we shall get more there.
The thief asks only: Remember me! He asks only to be with Christ. Literally he cries out, “Let me not be lost from thee. Remember me!” This guilty thief asks the only legitimate question we can ask as we hang condemned in the redeeming presence of the Holy God: “Grant mercy upon me. Pity me. Let me not be lost from thee. Let me abide with thee in heaven or in hell; remember me. Remember me! “
Phillips Brooks once answered a question concerning death with these words: “There are really only two things that can be said, first the dead are: secondly, the dead are with Christ.” Can we who stand before the cross of Christ whereon our precious Savior bleeds and dies because of our sins — can we ask any more? When we realize the reality of his innocence and our guilt, dare we ask more?
Is it not enough to know that we shall be remembered by him who made us, planned for us, wept for us as we stumbled and fell away, emptied himself to come to us, suffered and died for us? Is it not enough to be remembered by such a God, such a Christ, such a holy Creator-Redeemer? The martyrs and saints of Christendom answer with one voice: “It is enough. It is enough; for to be remembered by God is to be with God, and to be with God is life.” This is what “remember me” means: it means be with me, forsake me not, abide with me!
Two young men who were lifelong friends went to war. While they were on the battlefield engaged in combat with the enemy, a shell exploded near them. When the smoke cleared away the one young man saw his buddy some distance from him lying motionless on the muddy ground. Suddenly some soldiers caught hold of his arms and started dragging the young man back to the shelter and safety of the trenches. But the young man cried out, “Let me go! Can’t you see I must get out there and help my buddy?”
The soldiers pointed out to him that it was useless. His buddy had taken a direct hit and there was no chance that he was still alive. “He never knew what hit him,” they argued.
The young man wouldn’t listen; he broke away from his rescuers and crawled back onto the battlefield to the side of his buddy. He lifted up the limp body, held his friend for a moment, and then laid him reverently back on the ground.
When the young man made his way back to the trench, the calloused soldiers growled, “We told you so. You risked your neck for a foolish gesture.” To this the young man replied, “I shall never regret what I did, regardless of the risk; for when I reached the side of my buddy, the last words he spoke before he died were, ‘I knew you’d come.’ ”
The sting of death, any death, is the loneliness of dying — the sense of facing the unknown alone; this is the terrifying sting of death. But to die not alone — to die rather in the arms of a friend takes away the sting and gives to death a ringing note of victory — a victory that makes conquerers out of cowards, and enables us to die not as beasts but nobly as beloved children of God.
Particularly is this true when the one who holds us in his arms — his caring arms — is God incarnate! “Lord, remember me! Hold me! Let me not die alone!”
To the prayer of this thief — and to us — comes the magnificent promise of Jesus Christ our Lord: “Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.” Where paradise is we do not know. But this we know — paradise is with him! This is the meaning of this second word from the cross — that God will not forget us; in every hour of trial and torment he will surely come! In every moment of need — he will be there! We shall face death. Like every other creature we shall die; but we die not alone. We die with him and he dies with us. His death is an act of victory; therefore, we share not only his death but his victory and life.
“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”
“Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” Hold me! Hug me!
“Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.”