Biblical Reflections for the Year of Mercy - 12. Mercy on the Cross: An Eternal Reward (Lk 23:39-43)


One of the criminals, who were hanged there railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? 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 indeed, we 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.” And he replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

As we draw closer to the end of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, in this concluding article, I would like to reflect with you the last moments of Jesus’ suffering on the cross, transforming into an overflow of mercy and reaching out with his eternal reward of salvation to the penitent thief. Throughout his passion narrative, Luke emphasizes the divine mercy, compassion and the healing power of Jesus. For example, the healing of the severed ear of the high priest’s slave (22:51), reconciliation with Peter (22:61-62), forgiveness extended to his executioners (23:34), and finally, the reward of paradise to the repentant criminal (23:43). Moreover, Jesus’ trial brings even Pilate and Herod together in the bond of friendship (23:12). Thus we see, even in the midst of agony and trial, hostility and anger, mockery and derision, Jesus remains a true and an authentic model of unity and reconciliation, forgiveness and mercy.

While he hangs on the cross, Jesus becomes the victim of mockery. In the previous scene (23:35-38), two sets of mockers hurl insults and challenges at Jesus, namely the leaders and the soldiers. This is followed by two more characters, who are crucified beside him, speak to Jesus in a contrasting way—one with derision and another with admission of guilt. Luke often prefers to present in his Gospel, the pairs and the contrasting examples—Mary and Martha (10:38-42); the elder brother and the prodigal son (15:11-32), the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31); the persistent widow and the unjust judge (18:1-8); the Pharisee and the tax collector (18:9-14) etc.

Here, the entire conversation between the thieves and Jesus, which is unique to Lucan Gospel, takes places on the cross, planted on the ugly rock of Golgotha, just outside the city of Jerusalem. Crucifixion, a sign of Roman barbarity and brutality was reserved for the hard-core criminals, who perpetuated the heinous crimes like treason, revolts and dissensions. It was intended to induce a slow, but painful and gruesome death after which the bodies of the dead were left on the cross for a humiliating public display as a stern warning to the people, who might attempt to dissent. Upon reaching the place of crucifixion, the condemned were stripped, flogged, beaten and were stretched out on the wooden beams to be nailed or tied before they were hoisted up. The scene of crucifixion here is witnessed by two types of people, namely, those who mock, insult and jeer at the criminals (leaders, soldiers and people) on the one hand and the followers, family members and those who are sympathetic on the other hand, shocked by the repulsiveness of the human suffering on the cross.

One of the condemned criminals (whether he was hanging on Jesus’ left or right, the text does not say), having heard the mockery of scoffers towards Jesus, falls into the same trap. Perhaps, he gives into despair, knowing fully well the tragic end of his life, awaiting him in few hours. He too joins his voice to the deriding voice of the crowd to insult and to ridicule his neighbor on the cross, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” Even in his derision, unknowingly he forges a connection between the Messiah and his ability to save or to liberate.
However, another voice confronts the mockery of the thief and the jeering of the crowd and sides with the one who is suffering unjustly. The tradition has called him “Dismas” or “the dying one.” He reprimands the fellow criminal saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Though he admits their wrongdoing, the text does not specify the crimes, committed by either of them. His rebuke is already an indirect acknowledgement of their guilt and Jesus’ innocence. His only prayer is “remember me”. Remembering (zakar) is a very significant Semitic expression that reminds an Israelite to lovingly recall the mighty deeds of the Lord in the history of Israel. The act of remembrance is primarily an act of loving reflection on Israel’s past. However, here in the voice of the penitent thief, the ‘remembrance’ is closely connected with the future moment, “when you come into your kingdom.” It is ironical that both condemned people ask for salvation. The first one in a sarcastic voice coupled with mockery, while the second one with dignified humility, “remember me”. The first one is full of despair and cynicism and concludes that it is totally impossible to be saved. As a result, he dies without beholding the face of divine mercy, hanging next to him. However, the second is heard and he succeeds in stealing the blessing of paradise from the dying Jesus. Impossible becomes possible due to divine mercy!

when you come into your kingdom. The one who inaugurated God’s kingdom remains hanging on the cross and those who have rejected God’s kingdom keep mocking at Jesus. What leads Jesus to the cross is his commitment to establish God’s reign. To realize this, he challenged the corrupt authorities and the oppressive systems of his times. He told parables in his teaching that were subversive and intended to upset the religious establishment of his day. As a rabbi, he had women as disciples and as close friends. He called their leaders ‘hypocrites’, exorcised demons, broke the Sabbath law in order to do good to those who were sick and in bondage, had table fellowship with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners, touched people with flows of blood and raised the dead to life. He cleansed the temple from its commercial activities and challenged the authority of its leaders. He who proclaimed God’s kingdom always sought to destroy the powers of the kingdom of Satan, that were opposed to reign of God and its values. By putting Jesus to death, God’s kingdom does not come to an end or perish, rather it will continue and flourish. The penitent thief realizes that Jesus has been unjustly condemned to death, although he spent his life seeking love, peace and justice. Therefore, by requesting Jesus to remember him, when he comes into his glory, the thief indeed acknowledges the saving power of Jesus’ death, which is a gratuitous gift to anyone, who comes to the Lord with repentance and humility.

today you will be with me in Paradise. Though the thief’s request for remembrance points out to the future moment, Jesus in reply underlines the immediacy of salvation (“today”). Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, in the Synagogue at Nazareth, we had the prophecy of Isaiah being fulfilled “today” in the hearing of the audience (4:21). Similarly, when Jesus came to the house of Zacchaeus, he ushered in salvation, saying, “Today salvation has come to this house” (19:9). So, here in the text, as Jesus returns to the Father to enter into his glory, he promises the penitent thief a share in the experience of that salvation. He does not look into the past of the criminal, but sees his present, in which he has showed his faith in dying moments. Therefore, the entrance into the kingdom for the penitent thief happens immediately.

The penitent thief beholds the face of mercy in the evening of his life in the midst of a dark and violent world around him, and he is granted an assurance of salvation. Perhaps, he had not experienced such warmth, love and forgiveness from anyone until those final moments, when the definitive reversal in his life took place. After a lifetime of violence, hatred, and rejection, the penitent thief finally dies in peace, being assured of salvation. And this is made possible by the mercy of God, who suffers with the humanity and who knows the pain of each one of us. I am reminded here of Bernard of Clairvaux, who understood God’s capacity for suffering in this way: God is incapable of suffering (impassibilis), but he is not incapable of sharing another’s suffering (incompassibilis).

God always gives a second chance. Mercy and forgiveness offered to the penitent thief on Golgotha is offered also to us, provided we take a bold step to admit our sinfulness and brokenness, then, turn our gaze towards to the crucified Lord and ask him to remember us in our misery. Mercy that assured salvation to the condemned man will not judge our broken past, but will look with tenderness to welcome us to the paradise.

“Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Naveen Rebello, SVD