Monday, April 18, 2011

Holy Week, Day Two: The Last Words of Jesus

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

The desire for power drives much of the drama of humanity’s story. Posturing for advantage and control underlies most of the conflicts of history, both global and local.

In Mark’s gospel (chapter 10), James and John approach Jesus and ask for the positions at his right and left when he comes to a place of power. Jesus says that they do not understand what they are asking, and that those places are not his to grant. The other disciples are angered when they hear about the request, possibly because they hadn’t thought of it first.

At the end of the story, both Luke and Mark subtly address the irony of that request for advantage:

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. (Luke 23:33)

It appears that the power to grant the places to the right and left of Jesus came from the power of Rome rather than from Jesus. Jesus’ executioners decided who would be on either side of Jesus, and these would not be places of power, as James and John wrongly assumed. These were powerless places, places that would end in death.

It is from the right and the left that Jesus hears conflicting interpretations about what is happening to him. One man mocks him, ridiculing Jesus’ so-called messiahship that appears to have no ability to save anyone from the power of the Empire. The other man offers a rebuke to the first:

“Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:40b-41)

This condemned criminal sees what others have missed: Jesus is innocent. He shares the place of the criminals’ death but he doesn’t belong there. The religious leaders and the power of Rome have come together to label Jesus as a wrongdoer, one deserving death, but the criminal knows otherwise. In his place of powerlessness, he sees the truth about Jesus.

This, however, is all that he knows. There is no evidence of theological depth or a correctness of understanding of faith that could be labeled “Christian.” He has not believed in Jesus because Jesus died for his sins; he and Jesus still live. All he knows is that Jesus is innocent, and that God must be with him. That is probably why he made a request that stands in sharp contrast to that of James and John:

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42)

Jesus promise that the two of them will indeed be together in “Paradise,” the anticipated place of rest that will follow death. Even before resurrection there will be rest in Paradise, and the man will enjoy that rest simply because he asked to be remembered.

Once again, Jesus reaches out, even in his agony, to the least among the people. A dying criminal has no credentials of righteousness or any claim to a reward. But this one was remembered, and Jesus did not cross to the other side of death that day alone.

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