Gospel for March 20th, 2016: Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion
The length and depth of Luke’s passion narrative for Palm Sunday gives me pause as I consider responding in a blog. Jesus’s passion is so central to our faith, I wish to write with the utmost care. Yet, I think it is a mistake to attempt to tackle all of it in this blog; therefore, I have decided to focus on Jesus’s conversation with the Good Thief during their crucifixion. My reason is simple: I imagine he lived a life much like I have, ignoring God’s call. While I don’t know how true that may be, it would seem the criminal circumstances he finds himself in are his own doing, which he admits. The fact that he asks Jesus to “remember” him shortly before his death challenges my sense of reason. Could one live a life of sin, still repent, and be saved in his or her final moments? At times I ask this very question because I wonder if I too have left myself enough time in my life to repent after so many years pushing Jesus away. Is it ever too late?
Before attempting an answer, I think the words and tone of their dialogue deserves examination. Prior to the conversation, Jesus, the Good Thief, and another criminal have been suffering on their crosses for a while, although Luke is unclear how long. The desire for relief must have been all-encompassing. So it is not surprising that the other criminal says to Jesus, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us” (40). I think his request to be saved is not the problem; it is his rhetorical question whether Jesus is the Messiah. It suggests a lack of belief in the truth the Jesus is in fact the Messiah. Then, before Jesus can respond, the Good Thief rebukes his fellow criminal with, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we have received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal” (40-41). His words are repentant for two reasons. First, he admits to his own wrongdoing. Second and more importantly, his claim that Jesus is innocent indicates his belief that Christ is not misleading the people in His statements that He is Messiah and King of the Jews (2). Finally, it would appear that this moment of confession frees his heart to ask Jesus for salvation: “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom” (42). Jesus, of course, does not tell him it is too late. Instead, he mercifully replies as he suffers on the cross, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (43). Both criminals asked to be saved, but only the Good Thief is willing to state that Jesus is Lord and that salvation is only possible through Him.
And so I return to my question. Is that simple act of faith enough really enough to give hope to all of us Good Thieves out there? The answer is yes. In that answer, I ignore the rational logic that says there should be a ledger during my lifetime that keeps track of the balance between my sins and my good works. That sort of thinking is so tempting because we operate that way in so many aspects of our lives: in our schools, in our jobs, and our government where standards and laws abound. But we must remember that Jesus came to renew God’s covenant is faithfulness and love, not legalism and accounting.
Therefore, it is a different logic we must embrace, one that sees our salvation as participating in a loving relationship with Jesus through which we are a part of His body and His mission to gather all His people to Him. We say we love you Lord and all your creation each time we worship and pray, each time we admit our sins and ask forgiveness, each time we are called to love a neighbor or enemy by word or deed, and each time we resign ourselves to putting this mission before our desires. For those who have many years left before their time on earth is through, in this faith they will experience the connectedness of a relationship with Jesus that consistently provides happiness through His unconditional love and mercy, despite life’s perpetual trials. And when their time is up, they will say “Jesus remember me” and He will. For those, like Jesus’s criminal companions on the cross, who have only a short time left, the challenge is more difficult, not because they don’t deserve salvation, but because they may have denied Jesus’s love for so long they will not be able to believe it is possible He will forgive them their sins. And so they will, like the first criminal, continue to suffer separation from His love in their lack of faith unless they cannot radically open their hearts as the Good Thief did. They will be unable to say “Jesus remember me.” I once read that Judas was not damned to Hell because he betrayed Jesus, but rather because he could not believe he could be forgiven for what his sin of betrayal. That sounds about right to me. So I pray for all those sinners who doubt God’s mercy and forgiveness, as I have in the past. May Easter serve as a reminder that Jesus wants to gather all of us home.