And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified [Jesus], and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left… One of the criminals who was 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 [Jesus] said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:33, 39-43)
This is a familiar story to many of us. The criminal on Christ’s left slanders Him and is damned, while the one on His right pleads for mercy and is saved (right and left according to church tradition, St. Luke never says which criminal is on which side). But there is more going on here than just the fate of two men. Luke intends for every reader and hearer of his Gospel to see themselves as one of these two criminals.
Both criminals are guilty. Both have earned the death by crucifixion that the Roman Empire handed out to those who broke their laws. Neither of them can deny that. The one on the left mocks Jesus, saying that if He is the Christ He should save the both of them. While the one on the right says they rightly deserve what they suffer, but that Jesus is innocent. He pleads for mercy, and is promised by Jesus a welcome into Paradise.
The entire story should remind us of Jesus’ teaching of the Final Judgment in Matthew 25. Here also you see people on Christ’s right and left. Those on the right who are to inherit the kingdom prepared for them by the Father, and those on the left who depart into the eternal fire prepared for the devil. Two choices. Two options for mankind. Two paths before us.
We are those criminals who hang on either side of Jesus’ cross. All of us are sinners. We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God. None of us have any right to demand anything from God as if we have earned it. We simply plead for God’s mercy. The criminal on Christ’s right does not say “I’m a good person” or “I’ve always tithed” or “I always go to church” or “I’ve contributed to fundraisers, raised my children, and helped my neighbors.” Nothing like that. He admits he deserves to be there, and simply asks Jesus to be merciful and gracious to him.
And Jesus shows him mercy. Those words spoken to the criminal are recorded by Luke not just so that we know the fate of this one man, but that we may have assurance that Jesus speaks these words to everyone who trusts in Him. He delights to show kindness, and to forgive, no matter what sins we have committed. The right hand criminal is saved precisely because he confesses he is guilty, proclaims that Christ is innocent, and sees Him as a Savior who delights in showing mercy. He asks for forgiveness and receives it by the very blood of God being shed on a cross one over from his own. As do we. Christ speaks to you, His child, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Trinity & Good Shepherd Lutheran