Luke 23: 32–43
32 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The scene around Jesus’ cross was gruesome. He was naked, exposed to the curiosity of the crowd and the frivolity of the soldiers. “If you are the king of the Jews,” they taunted, “save yourself.” In the midst of this vicious and degrading scene there was irony, for above Jesus’ head Pilate had ordered the charge against him to be written — ‘King of the Jews.’ The extraordinary thing is that Jesus did not curse his tormentors. There is no spirit of revenge. Instead we hear a prayer – “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”.
Some suggest that Jesus was praying only for the soldiers, but if that were so he would have said, ‘Father, understand them,’ not, ‘Father forgive them.’ They were only carrying out their duty. It is more likely that Jesus was praying that God would forgive the ignorance of all – ignorance of who he is and what we do as ignorant and foolish people. Furthermore, he was praying not just for the crowd, for Pilate or the soldiers, but also for us.
The scene that follows is most instructive, for it shows us that the most important decision we need to make in life has to do with our relationship with Jesus. The first criminal chose to die without him, disparaging the God who had allowed his death. He was contemptuous of Jesus and blasphemed him. He chose to die as he had lived, totally rejecting anything to do with God.
However, the second criminal chose another way to die. This man’s life was no better than his colleague’s: he wasn’t religious or good by any means. He said so himself. Yet something about Jesus seems to have struck this hardened criminal. It may have been the contrast between Jesus’ prayer for his tormentors and the bitter hostility of his colleague. It may have been the righteousness that was so evident in Jesus that awoke this man to his guilt before God, or the tenderness and good will evident in Jesus that allowed him to hope that his prayer would be answered: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” His words are strikingly simple. In some vague way he understood that Jesus really is God’s king. He took the crucial step of asking the king for a place in his kingdom. It was an eleventh hour repentance. His faith may have had faith no bigger than a mustard seed, but Jesus’ response would have reached the depths of this dying man’s soul: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” To die with Jesus is very different from dying without him.
You may want to consider:
- the attitudes of the various groups and people there: why doesn’t Jesus pray, “Father, understand them”?
- the different attitudes of the dying men on either side of Jesus: do you agree that their attitudes reflect the two fundamental differences that exist in the human heart when people die?
- the meaning and implications of Jesus’ words, “Today you will be with me in paradise”?
Let me encourage you to pray:
© John G. Mason, Reason for Hope – 40 Days of Bible Readings and Reflections – 2016. All Rights Reserved.
- Comments on the text of The Gospel of Luke are adapted from, John G. Mason, Luke: An Unexpected God, Aquila: 2012 ↩