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Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

The Second Word from the Cross for Good Friday @ St. George’s, U. Street NW, Washington, D.C. (field ed site) on April 6. 2012

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” - Luke 23: 39-43

This is the narrative of the two thieves.

Matthew Chapter 27 says the bandits crucified with Jesus also taunted him (like the crowd).  Mark Chapter 15 and John Chapter 19 mention two bandits crucified with Jesus, one on his right, one on his left.  Only Luke Chapter 23 tells us that one of the two thieves mocked Jesus while the other repents.

The thieves have wronged and have been rightly judged, although we do not know their crimes.  Their transgressions apparently warrant death so this is no petty theft or larceny type of offense.  

In Marcus Borg’s book, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, he says that though the two were called “bandits” in the English translation of Mark 15:27, the Greek word is the term commonly used for those engaged in armed resistance against Rome--”terrorists” or “freedom fighters,” depending upon one’s point of view. [1]  My copy of the Greek-English Dictionary for the New Testament translates it as “robber” or “insurrectionist.” [2]

While one thief is vile and unrepentant, the other seeks Jesus’ mercy and to be remembered.  This is a sound lesson that it is not sin that keeps us away from God.  The problem usually is our inability to respond to the love of God, to repent and to change.  One thief does; the other does not.

Our Lord is crucified between two thieves.  There was a deliberate purpose for that; the authorities most likely intended it that way.  It was staged to humiliate Jesus in front of the people, for they wanted to rank him with robbers.

As Jesus hung on the cross, he was mocked by the leaders and the soldiers. The first of the two men being crucified with him added his own measure of scorn. Yet the other man, sensing that Jesus was being dealt with unjustly, cried out to him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

If you use Google, then you can find any number of legends about the penitent thief. [3] His name might be Dismas, Demas, or Dumachus.  One legend makes him a type of Judean Robin Hood to took from the rich to provide for the poor.  

Yet the most lovely legend tells how the Holy Family was attacked by robbers as they fled from Bethlehem to Egypt with the Christ child.  Jesus was saved by the son of the captain of the robber band. The Holy Child was so lovely that the young outlaw could not bear to lay hands upon him, but rather set him free, saying, “O most blessed of children, if there ever comes a time for having mercy on me, then remember me and forget not this hour.”  The legend has it that the robber youth who saved Jesus as a child met him again on Calvary; and this time, Jesus saved him.

The word Paradise is a Persian word which means ‘a walled garden.’ [4] When a Persian King wished to do one of his subjects a very special honor, he made them a companion of the garden which meant they were chosen to walk in the garden with the King.  It was more than immortality that Jesus promised the penitent thief that day.  Jesus promised him the honored place of a companion of the garden in the courts of heaven.

Certainly this story tells us above all else that it is never too late to turn to Christ.  There are other things of which we might say, ‘The time for that is past.  I am grown too old now.’  But we can never say that of turning to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As long as one’s heart still beats, the invitation of Christ still stands.  

The poet William Camden once wrote of a man who was killed when he was thrown from his galloping horse, “Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, Mercy I asked, mercy I found.”  It is quite literally true that while there is life, there is hope. [5]

One commentary suggests that this penitent thief puts Jesus’ own disciples to shame. [6]  For two+ years, Jesus had tried repeatedly to teach the chosen twelve that his kingdom was not of this world.  Now Jesus is dying.  To the disciples, that signaled the end of his kingdom.  There are no thoughts that he would rise to new life to reign in glory.  But to this robber next to Jesus, not so.  

Perhaps from the outer circle as Jesus taught, this man had heard about the Kingdom of God.  And, although Jesus was dying, the penitent believed in that kingdom beyond the grave.  This judged criminal understood the Lord better than even Jesus’ own intimate circle of friends.  

This unique scene with the ‘co-crucified’ is a masterpiece of Lucan theology.    Marion L. Soards, in his introduction to The Gospel According to Luke in The New Oxford Annotated Bible writes, “In general, wondering about the nature of salvation, the character of the kingdom of God, the reality of repentance, and the person and work of Jesus as the Lord--God’s messiah, son, and savior--will lead [us] to ask about the deeper significance that Luke is telling.  Luke’s primary concern is to inform [us] who Jesus was--and now, as who he is as the suffering, crucified savior and the risen, exalted Lord.” [7]

Blessed Jesus! He surely loved sinners!  Jesus was crucified between two thieves.  It was a symbol of his whole life that even at the end he companied with sinners.  “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Returning to the Father, Jesus bore in his arms the soul of a robber, the first-fruits of his mission to redeem the whole world.  

Though we should make every effort possible to have a good and right understanding of our faith through scripture, tradition and reason, and though we should always strive to live our lives each day as faithful followers and devoted disciples of Jesus, in the end, our relationship with our Lord and Savior comes down to simple trust.  “Jesus, remember me,” we cry.  And Jesus, embodying the most gracious, always present, never-ending mercy of God, says to us, “You will be with me in paradise.” We are welcome there not because we have right theology, and not because we live “good, holy and righteous lives,” but because God is gracious, merciful and full of compassion, and we have placed on trust in Jesus. 


1 Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 265.

2 Barclay M. Newman, Jr., A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament (London: United Bible Societies, 1971), 107.

3 Mark Smith, “The Legend of the Penitent Thief.” in Daily Reflections. Accessed at http://lentterm.blogspot.com/2010/11/legend-of-penitent-thief.html  Internet; accessed April 6, 2012.

4 William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), 287.

5 Ibid, 287.

6 H. H. Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook, 24th ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965), 523.

7 Marion L. Soards, “The Gospel According to Luke” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 1828.