by Rev. Fr. Alexander Kurien
The week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday is quite a roller coaster of experience. Last Sunday things were going pretty well. Jesus makes the triumphant trip into Jerusalem. And Easter Sunday causes the joy of Palm Sunday to pale in comparison. For there simply is no greater wonder, no greater joy, no greater promise of hope, than the promise of Easter. We are the resurrection people. This coming Sunday is at the very core of our lives as followers of Christ.
But here we are somewhere between the two. And for Jesus and his followers things have gone terribly wrong. Between the pinnacles, here we are in the very deepest of valleys. There are so much to be learned from these days between Palm Sunday and Easter. I am going to focus on those last words on the cross.
1. St. Luke 23:24 "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing."
The verse is placed there to make a point that Jesus followed his own directive that if we do not forgive from our heart, then God will not forgive us (Matthew 18:35). What is this thing called forgiveness? Is it something only God can do, or is it something humanly possible for each of us to forgive as well? Here on Good Friday we remember that one of Jesus' precious last words was that of forgiveness.
How can we interpret that for our own lives? Did Jesus give us a blanket of forgiveness forever as he hung there on the cross? Was it only forgiveness for those who were torturing and crucifying him to death? Our Lord's Prayer asks God to forgive us as--note that little word, "as"--as we forgive others, "as we forgive others". Forgive us for our sins, our debts, our trespasses.
But, first, let us forgive others their sins, their debts, and their trespasses against us. It is as though each sin committed against us is a deserved punishment for us. Otherwise why should we be forgiving others for what they did against us? We would forgive someone a debt owed us only if someone else had already paid that debt for us. That is how Jesus comes into the debt equation. Jesus died for our debts, our sins, our trespasses, and that means we have to pass along that forgiveness to someone else as we then become God's representatives in the world.
From the cross Christ forgave each of us. Some of us won't accept that forgiveness--we think we are better than that and could not possibly need forgiveness for our sins. But being the superstitious folk we tend to be, every bad thing that happens to us will then be interpreted as being God's way of punishing us for our sins. And many people simply do live their lives in fear because of the lack of forgiveness in their lives.
Without forgiveness there is remorse, remorse that our heart was not soft enough to forgive and forget, remorse that we ourselves have done something just as bad or worse to someone else, remorse that God did see precisely what we did. And the remorse just builds up and up and up. We begin to think of ourselves as "bad people", and that leads us to do even worse things. It is a downward spiral from there.
So forgiveness is absolutely essential for us to live at least modestly sane and happy lives. Otherwise we become caught in a web of anger, and the anger itself leads us directly into sin as we become more and more irrational and bitter. Thus the only reasonable way of life is to live a forgiving life. "Father, forgive them for they don't know what they are doing."
2. St. Luke 23: 43 "Today you will be with me in Paradise.
If we died today, where will you be? Let us look at those thieves on the cross. The thieves on the cross are suffering the pain of crucifixion. Let us divide these two thieves between two categories of people. The first thief says, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" What a picture of a spiritually destitute, worldly man. It is a matter of total indifference to him that he is suffering "the due reward of his deeds." To him right and wrong, praise and blame, good and bad are of no interest: his one objective is to save his earthly skin. He might even believe Jesus is the Messiah, the King of the Jews. But, it's only a matter of convenience to him: he'll take anybody as king who can get him off the cross - to serve his own worldly purposes.
That's the way one whole segment of humans relates to God in suffering. Suffering interrupts their own private worldly goals and pleasures. So why not try God; if you are king, then get me out of this mess, our problems in lives caused by our own actions and decisions. The thief had no spirit of brokenness, or guilt or penitence or humility. He could only see Jesus as a possible power by which to escape the cross. He did not see him as a king to be followed. It never entered his mind that he should say he was sorry and should change. Let us look at the one – the repentant/penitent thief.
A. He is not sucked in by the other fellow's railing; the repentant thief is not deceived by all this talk.
B. "But he rebuked him saying, 'Do you not fear God?"' He feared God. God was real to him.
C. The penitent thief admitted that he had done wrong: "We are receiving the due reward of our deeds" (v. 41). He had no desire to save face any more; he had no more will to assert himself. He was here and laid open before the God he feared and there was no way to hide has guilt. I know people right now who are in trouble. But instead of laying down their self-righteous defenses, they are devising every means to finagle and distort so as to appear innocent and cool.
D. Not only did he admit to wrong and guilt, he accepted his punishment as deserved. "We are under the sentence of condemnation justly." This is the real test of humility before God. Many will mouth the confession of sin: "God be merciful to us miserable sinners," but when some trouble comes, they get angry at him. And this anger reveals that they do not really feel undeserving before God. They still feel, deep down, that they have some rights before God. There are not many people like Job, who, when he lost everything, said: "Naked I came from my mother's womb and naked shall I return; the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." But this penitent thief did become like Job in the last minutes of his life - he took his suffering without complaint, and feared God.
E. The thief acknowledged Jesus' righteousness: "This man had done nothing wrong." It didn't make any difference to the first thief if Jesus was right or wrong. If he could drive the get-away car -- that's all that mattered. But it matters a lot to Jesus if we think his life was good or bad. Jesus does not want to drive a get-away car; he wants to be followed because we admire him. We must say with the thief: "This man has done nothing wrong." This man only does what is good. This man only speaks the truth. This man is worthy of our faith and allegiance and imitation.
F. The thief goes a step further and acknowledges that indeed, Jesus is a King. "Remember me when you come into your Kingdom." Even though he is suffering now, Jesus has the mark of a King. For those who have eyes to see, he has a power here on the cross -- a power of love that makes him King over all his tormentors. He is not only good, he is powerful, and one day will vindicate his great name, and every knee will bow and confess that Jesus is Lord -- to the glory of God, the Father.
G. Finally, the penitent thief does one more thing. He fears God, admits wrong, accepts justice, acknowledges the goodness and power of Jesus. Now he pleads for help. "Jesus, remember when you come into your Kingdom."
Both thieves wanted to be saved from death. But O how differently they sought their salvation:
1) "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!"
2) "Jesus, remember when you come into your Kingdom!"
There is an infinite qualitative difference between "Save me!" and "Save me!" Now what motive does Jesus give us to follow in the steps of the penitent thief? There is a fearful silence toward the railing thief: not a word recorded of Jesus to him. Perhaps a final pitying glance. But no promise. No hope. But to the penitent Jesus says: "Today you will be with me in Paradise." This was almost too good. There would not even be a delay. Today the Spirit of Jesus and the renewed Spirit of the thief would be in union in Paradise. The promise would be without delay.
On this Good Friday, let us self evaluate our lives – if we died today, where will you be? Can we say with great certainty that "I will be with Jesus in Paradise?" With our way of living, would Christ say to us "You will be with me today in Paradise." If we are not certain, let us refocus our lives to guarantee this certainty in our lives.
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