One of the criminals who were hanged 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 we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” –Luke 23:39-42
There was another criminal next to Christ the day he died. He was aware of who Jesus was, and why he was there. Unlike the other criminal who seemed to accept his fate and cry out for mercy, this one had a different plan. He knew this innocent man hanging next to him was alleged to be more than just a good Rabbi with followers that sat under his teachings. I don’t know if he knew it as a result of Jesus’ popularity and claims of his miracles that spread throughout the region, or because of the hecklers at the cross jeering him for his claims of being the Son of God. Either way, this criminal very specifically cried out to Jesus. “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” Here was this criminal, deserving of his fate, afraid of death just like the other, but instead of humbly begging before Christ that his soul be in his care, he says, save me NOW! Both were asking for a rescue. Both were asking for salvation in a sense. But this man, wanted it only for a moment. He wanted all the power and authority of Jesus, but didn’t address his internal needs to be cleansed and his eternal need for ultimate salvation. He was blinded to what Christ could truly mean for him right up to the end. He only wanted Jesus to prove himself for his own twisted gain.
Like the two sons in the parable of the prodigal, and like the Pharisee and the tax collector, I see myself in both criminals. I do, even today, cry out to God with a prayer that says, “Remember me, but forget my sins.” I want so much to be the humbled, returning prodigal or the man who because of the condition of his heart doesn’t dare walk through the doors of a temple. I want to be so aware of my condition that just as Jesus last words are, IT IS FINISHED, I want mine to be, “Remember me, through all that is finished.” But I can’t, because I am also the Pharisee, who sometimes looks at people and declares quietly and privately, “Thank you God, that I am not like them.” I am the son who has it all, and still feels slighted because he thinks his “unwavering” obedience should give him so much more than his brother, who is now crawling home. I am that criminal even now who cries out to God in my pain, “Remove this from me.” I am asking more from God, from Jesus than I care to admit. I am saying, “This salvation thing is nice, but why do I have to suffer like this. You are God, and you can do something about it. You can stop it, you can heal it, and you can save me from all of it!” When he doesn’t, you are nearly ready to walk away from it all, wondering if you’ll return this time. You’ve been saying, “Save me”, but what you really mean is, “If you do this, THEN I’ll believe in you more, and THEN I’ll follow you more.” Some days, that’s exactly what I want to say to God, and to be honest, if I don’t say it, there are days when I think it.
The two criminals, like the story of the prodigal, and the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, are more than just parables of right and wrong, or what to do and not do. These criminals are more than just a historical picture of two sinners making a choice on their “deathbed.” I think they are all great illustrations of the dual nature that resides in each one of us. Simul Justus et Peccator. We are both simultaneously saint and sinner. Over and over again, I see myself in both characters in the parables mentioned and in the story of the criminals crying out on their crosses. I am not nearly humble enough, not nearly repentant enough. Not nearly sorry enough. I may want to be, but I can’t admit to it. Just as the Apostle Paul would refer to himself as the chief sinner and tell of his wrestling with both natures and sometimes losing to the baser of the two, I have that same battle within me and there are days when I lose badly. I am thankful for the grace God gives because he knows this and still takes me and saves me. He still plants faith in me to believe and trust him.
There is one more “player” in each of these passages. One more player who stands apart from both criminals, from both sons, from the Pharisee and tax collector. He is firm and unchanging. He is loving and always willing to give mercy and grace. It is God. God is at the center of these conflicts. He is the loving father, wanting and longing to receive his wayward son home. He is the one who wants to anoint this humbled and broken tax collector with the waters of forgiveness, and through Christ’s words on the cross, we see that he wants to usher this criminal into paradise and supply him with a robe of righteousness. There really is only one difference between those who God hears and those he didn’t.
These broken men, hurt by life, devastated by their choices come to God, pleading, “REMEMBER ME, FORGIVE ME, PLEASE TAKE ME BACK!” The Father’s response is always, “Gladly! Well, done good and faithful servants.” The others, thought of themselves. The criminal says, save me from THIS death, here on the cross RIGHT NOW. He loved his life above all things. The Pharisee thought highly of himself. He thought he was following the law. It is amazing that even today Christians still think they can do this. The son who remained, placed all his worth on his physical obedience to his father even though he was filled with hate for him for accepting his brother back. Why do we think we are wholly and completely following God with reluctant obedience? If we grumble as we “go and do”, we are showing that there is an even a deeper disobedience and an even greater need to hear and trust in the gospel of grace and the mercy of God!
By their actions, and by their words they rejected God. They rejected the full measure of grace that does it all in their stead. They rejected his ability to do it all and trusted in their own ability to save themselves. They rejected the God that is, for the one that doesn’t exist. The “god” they thought they could order around, and the “god” they thought would bless them if they appeared to be keeping the law. We must remember always, that God has done everything to save us, everything to bless us. He has planted faith in us, watered it and sustained it. If we are grafted into a vine, it is because he is the great gardener that knows best how to graft us in. It is always by the work he does. If we grow, if we flourish it’s not because we are doing better or we are doing more. It’s because the roots of that growth are found in the soil of repentance and forgiveness. It is because the soil is rich with absolution.
I am at times that criminal asking him to save my skin and nothing more.
I am at times that criminal that begs, “Remember me.”
Simul Justus et Peccator..
Sinner and saint