"I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in paradise."
- Luke 23:43
Several years ago during Lent, the UPS driver dropped the customary oversized envelope at my front door.
The packets arrive often, always late in the day, always soliciting another round of commentary the publisher will add to one of their music magazines under the heading "Performance Notes." Teaching by proxy, I call it - this fun, diversionary task I began for the Lorenz Publishing Corp. about seven or eight years ago.
Included in the latest packet was the usual, cheery note from the music editor, followed by his trademark "smiley face" and friendly signature, "Terry." What was not in the envelope, and what I wouldn't know until later: Terry Kirkland had died in a fire early that morning, hours before I received his note.
Suddenly, the second "word" Jesus spoke from the cross had new meaning.
Jesus didn't die alone. When the Roman soldiers hoisted his beaten body onto a rough-hewn cross, he joined two other death-penalty cases scheduled for execution the same day: two guilty robbers and one innocent Son of God, humiliated together before a jeering crowd.
They positioned Jesus on the higher, middle cross, not to indicate his superiority - in their minds anyway - but perhaps to highlight his superior "crimes." God, however, may have positioned him in the center so, in a private moment, he could turn to one of his coincidental companions and offer him new life to replace the one he was about to lose.
We know the story: one thief attacking his accusers and deriding the so-called "Son of God" because, "If you are the Christ, then save yourself and us, too"; and the other, calmer thief wondering about this "King of the Jews," or whatever strange name he went by.
But we may not remember that, at first, the second thief railed against Jesus, too: "And the robbers" - plural - "that were crucified with him also heaped insults upon him" (Matthew 27:44).
It's not unusual for a man who has lived his life by few rules to fall in step with an unruly crowd. In life, neither thief had given Jesus' claims a second thought. In death, though he knew his punishment fit his crime, human instinct intervened and this thief, too, wanted down from his cross.
We wonder what changed his mind. Why didn't he join the other thief and keep up the insults, too? Considering his physical agony, how did he have the presence of mind to think of anything else?
Judea was a small country where robbers and teachers both moved frequently from place to place. Quite possibly the paths of this thief and teacher had crossed before, perhaps often.
"I am the way...," "Come unto me...," "I have come to save, to forgive...," the thief must have heard. Could this soft-spoken, unarmed man with no band of thugs at his side be the same man? "Why," he may have asked, "is he so different from me?"
We can only imagine the man's thoughts, but we can be certain of the result of his changed heart. The simple, last words of a dying man, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom," received a profound reply: "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:42-43).
The thief might never have heard the words "salvation" or "heaven," but he would have understood "paradise." Originating in Persia, paradise meant "a walled garden." When a Persian king wished to honor one of his subjects he would invite him into his private garden. Greater still, he would walk there with him.
We may know Jesus was offering this man salvation and eternal life, but the thief knew, wherever that garden paradise might be, he had received the high and honored place of companion to a king.
Whatever the dying thief understood his encounter with Jesus to mean, the primary message of the second word from the cross is this: We can never be too guilty for Jesus to forgive our sins and, short of death, it is never too late to ask him to do so.
Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to seabara at aol.com.
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