The Penitent Thief

This coming Sunday is the celebration of the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. In yesterday’s post we explored those people and leaders who mocked and condemned Jesus. Today we consider those executed alongside him – the two thieves – an account only in the Gospel of Luke

While one of the criminals, already crucified, began to revile “Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” The word “revile” is eblasphēmei, literally “blaspheme.” It is then we hear the words from the one we know as “the penitent thief.”  Luke does not describe the criminal in such terms. His crime is never described and his penitence is conveyed only by his acknowledgement of his guilt and Jesus’ innocence, and his request that Jesus remember him.

The other criminal reprimanded the other, saying “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? 41 And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”  The criminal adds his own proclamation of innocence to those of Pilate, Herod and later the centurion at the foot of the cross. He also fulfills Jesus’ instructions in 17:3 – “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. The petition echoes the plaintive cries of those in need and those dying in ages past. “Remember me…” is the petition of Joseph to his fellow prisoner who would be set free (Gen 40:14). Hannah prayed to God “Remember me” (1 Sam 1:11), as did Nehemiah (5:19, 13:31), Job (14:13), the psalmist (25:7, 106:4), and Jeremiah (15:15). The criminal’s request echoes all those who have gone before him hoping for a relief from suffering in this world.

The thief’s request is perhaps the greatest act of faith in all of scriptures. Jesus is dying on the cross. The apparent reality is that this king and his kingdom and his power will come to an end. That was the purpose of the execution. Jesus is dying, yet the criminal has the faith to see and believe that Jesus can remember him. He has the faith to see and believe that Jesus is the one who will rule as king. Perhaps there is no better illustration of the theology of the cross than the criminal’s request. God’s power to rule the universe is seen as Jesus is dying on a cross. Yet he sees something more than the obvious: this dying Jesus will rule as king.

Image credit: Christ the King, Krakow Poland, Pixabay, CC-BY-NC

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