Ash Wednesday Reflection: The Repentant Criminal's (Almost) Last Words
In Luke's account of the crucifixion, the two criminals crucified to the left and right of Jesus take very different approaches to Jesus on the cross. In one, we see mockery (Luke 23:39); in the other, we see a strong defense of Jesus and this criminal's famous last words: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom (Luke 23:42)." It is the words of this second repentant criminal that I want to address, as an Ash Wednesday reflection.
At the same, it is not on the previously-mentioned famous last words of the second criminal that I want to address. Rather, I want to address this repentant criminal's prior words while hanging on his own cross. I am sure some will say that I have missed the point of Luke's account by addressing the criminal as opposed to Jesus' response to this criminal: "Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise (Luke 23:43)." Others will say that I have missed the point by addressing what the criminal has to say about his own condition, rather than by addressing his final plea to Jesus. I assure you that the point regarding the power and the authority Jesus Christ has to save us with His grace and mercy even in the last moment of our lives--if we but turn to Him--has not been lost on me. (Before moving on and without comment, I will only add that while it is nice to know we can cry out to Christ at the last moment, Jesus makes it quite clear that we ought to be careful with this approach: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven (Matthew 7:21).")
But earlier in the same passage, we see what seems to me to be one of the major challenges in this account of the crucifixion. We see the repentant criminal not only recognize Jesus as a sinless man (though I will be the first to say that this, in and of itself, is a lot), but also his partial (if not total) realization of his own sinful state. As this repentant criminal says to the unrepentant criminal: "We have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal (Luke 23:41)." Herein lies the challenge.
I dare say this non-Christian criminal--sentenced to death--had a better understanding of his sinful state than many of us do. In truth, many of us dare not examine ourselves and who we truly are for fear of what we will find ever-present within: sin, anger, fear, pain, lust, unforgiveness, envy, and the like. Unlike many of us, the repentant criminal seems to take on the attitude present in the words of the Psalmist: "For I know my offense; my sin is always before me (Psalm 51:5)." The truth is, most of us don't want our sins before us. We'd rather ignore them, and simply sweep them under the bed.
Yet this attitude of looking at ourselves as offenders of God, as criminals worthy of a just sentence is one lesson Luke intends to portray. Yes, Jesus can save us from the just punishment we each deserve; He can save us from the wrath of God. But perhaps to truly be able to call out to Him and be heard (again, Matthew 7:21), we must begin to look at ourselves as we truly are. And perhaps, like the repentant criminal, we need to put ourselves--or minimally those personal traits which are offensive and criminal in the eyes of the Lord--on our own cross.
Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. --John 12:24-25I pray that this Lent we can die in ways the Lord would have us die.