Holy Week: The Thieves on the Crosses

A Lenten Mediation for Holy Week

A dramatic element in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion is the case of Barabbas, the man released by Pilate instead of Jesus. Barabbas was a notorious person. John uses the term lēistēs to describe Barabbas, which is more than a common thief. The lēistēs is not the non-violent criminal who breaks into your home and steals your stuff while you are not at home. He is the person who confronts you directly and threatens violence in order to rob you. And he will use violence if necessary. This is the mugger, the bandit. There is nothing romantic or Robin-Hoodish about the lēistēs. Barabbas was a very bad person.

Luke uses this same term, lēistēs, to describe the two men who are crucified with Jesus. These were violent thugs. These are the ones whom Jesus has for his final companions. It could not get much lower than this. He is being executed with the worst of the worst.

But is did get lower. One of these robbers, hanging on a cross next to Jesus, is so vile and bitter that he begins to make fun of Jesus:

Come on Dude, Yeshua, aren’t you supposed to be the Messiah? Aren’t you the all-powerful miracle worker? Aren’t you the toast of the town, the most popular man in Jerusalem? Work a little magic here, my friend. Get us down off these crosses and help us escape. What? Why? Can’t you do it? What’s wrong, ya big phony!

And in this farce, this tragic circus of events, Jesus has a most unlikely defender: the other thief, the guy on his other side. This second thief says:

Shut up stupid. Have you no shame? Don’t you fear God? You should, because we are going to meet him in a few hours. We both deserve to be on these crosses, but this man, he did nothing wrong. He is innocent. He is holy. I’ve heard great things about him. So shut your mouth. I wish I could get off this cross and shut it for you.

And then he turns and says to Jesus:

Sir, when this is all over, remember me. When you receive the power that God has promised you, remember me.

And Jesus, even in his pain and his humiliation, even under great stress and untold agony, hears what this thief says, and recognizes the voice, for it is the voice of faith. It is, perhaps, the most remarkable expression of faith Jesus has ever heard, a dying man telling another dying man who is nailed to a wooden cross that he believes in him. So, in the midst of this great ugliness, Jesus says something beautiful:

Brother, trust me. Later today you will be with me in Paradise.

“Paradise” is a metaphor for something great. The word is actually from the ancient Persian language and was used for a splendid garden that might be part of the residence of a rich man. The Bible’s idea of Paradise, though, is like nothing on Earth. It is not a place whose location has been lost, a mythical but real location somewhere in a hidden corner of the world. Paradise is a metaphor for Heaven, the abode of God, the place of perfect fellowship and joy. In the book of Revelation, the Risen Christ has this to say to the church at Ephesus:

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. (Revelation 2:7, NIV2011)

Paradise, we learn, is a place for those who conquer, the spiritual victors. Paradise is a place for the faithful, for those who have placed their trust in Christ, just like this thief on the cross.

Our remaining time on earth may be long or short, we don’t know. We read every day of the death of someone who did not expect to die. For any of us, that day may be today or tomorrow. What do you want to hear Jesus say on that fateful day, on your last day? I know what I want to hear. I want to hear my Savior say, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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