Yesterday we reflected on how Jesus, hanging dying on the cross, looks down and sees, really sees, his mother and his best friend John, and how he extends himself for their benefit, establishing a new community, a new family. In so doing, he begins to undo the effects of sin – those effects that fragment and rupture relationships, which we have repeatedly seen are central to God’s experience of being God.
Luke 23 relates another encounter of Jesus with the people around him. This version does not explicitly say that Jesus saw or looked at them, but given the depth of his responses, it seems fair to accept that Jesus did see them.
Jesus is crucified with two criminals. The one “hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us’” (Luke 23:39). The English “hurled insults” is, in the Greek, eblasphemei, from which, of course, we get our English word, ‘blaspheme’. It is amazing, but sadly true, to what extent arrogance and hostility towards God can continue even in the midst of judgement and suffering. This man, on the brink of death, continues to express bitterness and rage against the best that the world has to offer.
The other criminal, however, recognises that Jesus has no reason for being there – he is innocent and undeserving of death: “But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong’” (Luke 23:40-41).
What is most striking about this man is this combination of taking ownership of his own wrongdoing and resultant punishment, and recognising Jesus’ innocence and thus unjust punishment. And then, to cap it all, he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Not only does he recognise Jesus’ innocence, but he also recognises Jesus as Lord and King. He takes a remarkable leap of faith.
Perhaps Jesus ignored the taunts of the first man. But the second man catches his attention. Jesus responds, as he always has, to expressions of faith, no matter how profound (here we think of Peter’s “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” in Mathew 16:16, or Thomas’ “My Lord and my God” in John 20:28) or how tentative (perhaps the woman who was bleeding in Mark 5:28).
Jesus replies, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
This is redemption. Today, this very day, you will be with me, in paradise with me. Truly, I tell you. Amen!
Jesus Christ redeems this man on the cross. Here, as we saw yesterday, Jesus extends himself, beyond himself, to care for another human being. It is instinctive for him to do so. It was so throughout his ministry. It was so as he hung dying on the cross. And it remains so today. Christ Jesus extends himself for those who turn towards him.
One of the amazing things that we can take out of this narrative is the fact that this criminal could do nothing to win his salvation. He was nailed to a cross. He could not get baptised or confirmed. He could not sign a membership form at the local church. He could not take Holy Communion. He could not serve in God’s mission. He could not make amends to the people he had harmed while doing crime. He could do nothing to earn his salvation. He could not even work out his salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). All he could was to turn to Christ in faith and receive the salvation offered to him.
This is a profound example of salvation by grace through faith. Paul says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
- Salvation by grace means that salvation is something that God gifts to us – it is not earned or deserved. Indeed, this criminal deserved to be punished (perhaps not on a cross, but in some way he had earned punishment). Salvation was not something he deserved. And yet God extends salvation to him anyway.
- Salvation through faith means that once salvation is gifted to us, we receive it on faith, by just accepting it, empty-handed, open-hearted – we just accept it. The criminal shows us salvation through faith because his hands are nailed to a cross – he can do nothing but receive what Jesus offers him.
Sometimes we tie ourselves up in knots over redemption. We know that we are saved by grace through faith, but we still feel that we have to do something to earn it. We must pray so much per day or read so much per day or attend church so many times or tithe so much or serve so much or feel remorseful so often or perform so many rituals. Any or all of these things may help us to work out our salvation – to enrich and express our salvation as we journey through life – but they add absolutely nothing to our being saved.
This is redemption. We are saved only by the mercy of God – by grace through faith – who loves us so much and so unconditionally that we are offered this gift as a gift; no strings attached, no small print, no terms or conditions.
But imagine, if you will, that there is a small family gathered near the cross. They are there to watch the execution of the criminal. He did something terrible to this family. Perhaps he raped their daughter or murdered their father. They have come to see him die, to satisfy their rage and grief. And they hear Jesus offer these words of reassurance to this criminal – the promise of salvation and life in paradise. How hard that must have been for them! He in paradise, while their loved one lies maimed or dead.
God’s capacity to forgive is far greater than ours. And as much as we want God to save us, we may want God to not save certain other people. That is human. But God is not human. God loves you. God loves all of us – even criminals, even monsters, even the most evil person you can imagine. It is terribly hard for us to get our hearts around this, and sometimes we cannot accept it; sometimes we deeply desire to reject this. But God still loves them and desires their salvation and works to reconcile them to God.
This is the great and challenging message of Christ regarding forgiveness and salvation – it is open to everyone, even those we deeply desire to not have it. All we can do is trust that God’s love is all embracing. All we can do is believe that God knows people’s hearts – ours and theirs. All we can do is pray to have God’s heart and God’s eyes.
This is redemption. Other people are saved only by the mercy of God – by grace through faith – who loves them so much and so unconditionally that they are offered this gift as a gift; no strings attached, no small print, no terms or conditions.
Just before this narrative about the criminals, Luke tells us that Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). This is the theme of this passage of Luke. Redemption or salvation is about forgiveness – undeserved, unmerited. God forgives out of the generosity of God’s love, out of God’s persistent desire to reconcile with us, to be in relationship with us. For us, forgiveness is a hard thing to do. But for God, forgiveness is an inevitable expression of persistent love.
Here, Jesus, having just been hung up to die, prays that God will forgive those who crucified him. He sets an example that very few of us can emulate. For me, forgiveness is something that I journey towards over time. It is not an on-off switch. It is a repetitive, spiral process of increasingly letting go of anger and of my sense of being entitled to retribution or compensation. And psychologically, I think that is right for us as frail human beings. But Jesus sincerely forgives in that moment and opens his heart to those who have harmed him, those who have taken his life.
This is redemption. God chooses to let go of anger and of the fully justified right to exact punishment or retribution. Divine forgiveness is God choosing to set us free of the debt that we owe for our sin, with the hope that we will reconcile with God. And that freedom is salvation.
Jesus promises the second criminal that they will be together in “paradise”. The Greek word here comes from a Persian word meaning garden. Many of us think of paradise as puffy clouds and white robes and harps – all rather ethereal and disembodied. But Jesus was thinking of something quite tangible and earthy – a garden! With trees, and shrubs, and grasses, and flowers, and soil, and birds, and insects, and lizards, and a stream running through it.
This is redemption. For Jesus, paradise is a return to the Garden of Eden. This is a turning back of world history, a turning back of the consequences of sin, a turning back of evil and judgement. To be saved is to return to Eden – to that garden in which our ancestral mother and father dwelled in harmony with God, with each other, with the world and with themselves – humanity prior to the Fall. Paradise is that place where everything that went wrong with us has been made right again.
Paradise is the place where we fully love and are fully loved by God. This is redemption.
Meditation for the Day
Reflect on the meaning of redemption. And on divine forgiveness. What does it mean to you that God has redeemed, saved and forgiven you? What does this say about your being God’s beloved?
Prayer for the Day
Oh Lord, my redeemer, my saviour, I thank you for your freely-given gift of forgiveness and reconciliation. How amazing is your love! Help me to take hold of this salvation, to fully accept it, to immerse myself in it, so that I may be transformed by your love into the image of your beloved Son.