No, I’m not talking about Gramercy Park, New York City – although I’ll come back to that. I’m referring to an old English word, gramercy, used by Shakespeare, that is derived from the French, grand mercy, meaning ‘heartfelt, big thanks’.
That said, the name ‘Gramercy’ for the only locked private park in New York was derived from the Dutch, Krom Moerasje, ‘little crooked swamp’ – which is what the park originally was.
Now permit me a personal note about Judith’s and my ‘heartfelt thanks’ following September 11, 2001. That day we were living Downtown in the New York City financial district, quite near the Twin Towers. With the destruction of the towers, our apartment building was in the original Ground Zero. We needed to find a new place to live.
Unexpectedly, I received a call asking if we would be interested in moving to an apartment in the Gramercy area. ‘Yes, please!’ How heartfelt our thanks were – to the Lord and to the phone-caller. For us ‘gramercy’ took us back to the earlier English meaning. It also reminded us of the ‘big thanks’ everyone of us owes God.
Consider the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke chapter 23, beginning at verse 33.
Two others, criminals, were crucified with Jesus at a place known as The Skull (which in Latin is calvaria, hence our ‘Calvary’). The positioning of Jesus between these two seems a deliberate way of implying that he was just another criminal. This also fulfilled the prophecy: He was numbered with the transgressors (Isaiah 53:12).
We can identify two important themes – a prayer and a promise.
A Prayer. Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’ (23:34).
Everyone watching that day knew Jesus was innocent. They knew the injustice of it all. So, for whom was he praying? Some suggest his prayer was for the soldiers, but in that case he might have said, ‘Father, understand their situation’. They were doing their duty. Others say his prayer was for the Jewish leaders who had stirred events that led to his crucifixion.
We make better sense of the prayer when we read it all: ‘for they do not know what they are doing’. Jesus was praying for people who shut their minds to the voice of truth. Yes, he was praying for the Jewish leaders who taunted him (23:35). And he was praying for the Roman soldiers who mocked him as the ‘King of the Jews’ (23:36f). Significantly, with his prayer he was putting into practice the law of neighbor love that he had spoken about in his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:28-34). In his hour of crisis, he prayed for others and forgave them their ignorance.
But, he was also praying for his followers and the watching crowd. And, let me suggest he was praying then for you and me now. At one time or another we have all have mocked the dying Christ. Deep down all of us have rejected his claims to be our Lord.
An inscription stating the charges against Jesus, was put over his head in accord with normal Roman practice. Significantly, Pilate wrote: This is the King of the Jews (23:38). He quoted back to the Jewish leaders their accusation against Jesus. In doing so, the Roman governor was also stating the deeper truth we find in Luke’s narrative: Jesus is the king of the Jews. He is the Messiah and the Lord. This theme is illustrated in the conversation that follows.
A Promise. One of the criminals being crucified with Jesus was contemptuous: ‘Are you not the Christ?’ he mocked. ‘Save yourself and us!’ (23:39). He chose to die as he had lived – dismissive of anything religious. Even his colleague was shocked, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?’ he said (23:40). As a minister who has been at the bedside of many dying people, it is tragic to witness this kind of death. There is no peace and no hope of the future.
The second criminal chose another path: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,’ he asked (23:42). Now this man’s life was no better than his colleague’s. He freely admitted that he and his colleague deserved to die – ‘receiving the due reward of our deeds’ (23:41). Yet, as he died, he reflected on his own unworthiness compared with the innocence he recognized within Jesus. His conscience was stirred.
Something about Jesus impressed him. It may have been the sharp contrast between Jesus’ prayer and the bitter anger of his colleague. He knew Jesus was innocent: ‘This man has done nothing wrong,’ he said (23:41). However bad his life may have been, he feared God enough to recognize his need.
The simplicity and directness of his requests are striking. He isn’t religious or pretentious. He may have remembered what he was taught as a boy about God, and about God’s promise that one day he would send a successor to the great King David. Perhaps he began to see that Jesus was that king, and so he asked the king for a place in his kingdom – when Jesus was enthroned.
His repentance came in the closing hours of his life; his faith may have been no bigger than a mustard seed, but Jesus made a promise: ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise’ (23:43). Paradise was a Persian word meaning garden. Found a number of times in the Old Testament it had a special reference to the Garden of Eden. Used here, it is a metaphor for the experience of God’s blessing in the world or age to come.
Jesus was assuring this man of the blessing he would know on his death. His dying would not be without hope. And his experience would be immediate: ‘Today’ you will experience this. There would be no purgatory or hell. We can hear the echoes of King David’s Psalm 23: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil, for you are with me… To die with Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is very different from dying without him.
The repentant criminal would have died that day with hope in his heart. With heartfelt, big thanks to Jesus who made that promise he could have said from the depth of his soul: Gramercy!
Which brings me back to a personal comment. Having been given sanctuary after 9/11, Judith and I used gramercy in its old English sense to express our heartfelt thanks to the Lord for protecting us and for providing us with a new home and, in turn a place where we could launch what became Christ Church NYC and later, in 2010, what is now Emmanuel Anglican Church NYC.
In God’s mercy, the ministry that ‘God is the Lord whose nature is always to have mercy’, continues in both churches today.
A prayer. God our Father, whose will is to bring all things to order and unity in our Lord Jesus Christ; grant that all the peoples of the world, now divided and torn apart by sin, may be brought together in his kingdom of love; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
© John G. Mason
Note: Today’s ‘Word’ is adapted from my book in the ‘Reading the Bible Today’ series, Luke: An Unexpected God, 2nd Edition, Aquila: 2018.
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