Holy Week 2011 Daily Reflection on the Last Words of Christ
Luke 23. 39-43
39One of the criminals hanging there also insulted Jesus by saying, "Aren't you the Messiah? Save yourself and save us!"
40But the other criminal told the first one off, "Don't you fear God? Aren't you getting the same punishment as this man? 41We got what was coming to us, but he didn't do anything wrong." 42Then he said to Jesus, "Remember me when you come into power!"
43Jesus replied, "I promise that today you will be with me in paradise."
Every Christmas since I can last remember, my sister and I undergo a painstaking calculation about what gifts we will give each other and our families. Almost unconsciously and without too much conversation, we figure out what we will each receive from the other and how we can best match the gift. A lot of this calculation comes from the best of motives: we want to show enough generosity that the other family’s gifts are not overshadowed. But I suspect that some of the calculation comes from a worse motivation: we don’t want to be in the other person’s debt, at least in our own imaginations, to think that we owe the other person anything. How much of all of our gift-giving at Christmas is like this, I wonder? How much do we all try to negotiate a settling of balances with the gifts we give? This ‘settling of balances’ either can issue out of love (for I do love my sister and her family) or can sometimes flow out of a somewhat resentful obligation (because I only gave a present to my neighbour because she gave one to me).
I talked earlier about the Last Words of Christ on the Cross as a kind of gift where the gift is the giver. The gifts that Jesus gives on the Cross are himself, not as a static, dying object that somehow saves us, but as the shape of a life dedicated to holiness, to the drawing up and healing of a broken creation through God’s love. But how do we relate to that gift of Christ, I wonder? Do we regularly enter into a kind of calculation about how we can repay Christ? Do we think we need to ‘give something back’ in order for Christ’s gift to be validated? Do we look to how we can ‘settle the balance’ of our spiritual account, either lovingly or through a sense of obligation? In his Second Word, we hear Jesus give an amazing gift to one of the criminals crucified with him. This Second Word says a lot to us about the gift of Christ and challenges us to re-assess how we act towards others but also ourselves.
“One of the criminals,” we are told, “also insulted Jesus by saying ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and save us!’” Luke continues the irony of Jesus’ crucifixion: both the leaders who have plotted to take his life, the soldiers who drive nails through his hands, and even the crucified criminal mock Jesus with the title that his followers know to be true – He is the Chosen One. Those who contemplate the scene understand that all that is denied of Jesus remains clear and true to the eyes and hearts of faith. But to all of this, Jesus remains silent. All that denies the life of God receives nothing from Jesus: hearts are like stone, ears are deaf, and eyes cannot see. It is only when the second criminal begins a conversation that Jesus responds with the Second Word, a word of life, a gift of grace.
This second criminal rebukes the first: “Don’t you fear God? We got what was coming to us, but this man didn’t do anything wrong!” The second criminal admits his guilt. Yet, this second criminal is hardly repentant: we have no reason to suppose he has met Jesus before, or that knows of his teachings; there is no plea for forgiveness, no promise of leading a better life, and no moral sorrow for wrongdoing. No, this second criminal, perhaps in one last desperate gambit for life, begs “remember me when you come into power.” The second criminal believes that Jesus is indeed some kind of king and can dispense the pardon and mercy only a king can. Maybe he thinks Jesus is an earthly king who still might get out of this crucifixion. Jesus’ response is therefore all the more remarkable: without any prerequisite, Jesus says, “today you will be with me in paradise.”
Jesus’ gift of life here is remarkable because it presents itself regardless of the second criminal’s intention or understanding, and because it is given unequivocally, without demands about what will be expected in return. Jesus’ gift declares the criminal forgiven, free, and welcome to be in his eternal kingdom immediately, “today.” The choice of “paradise” remains telling: it is the only instance of the word in the Gospels, and harks back to the Garden of Eden, a state of absolute innocence and living in God’s immediate presence. ‘Paradise’ is the end-point of Jesus’ mission to save the world and the invitation to, the citizenship of, is given first to a criminal on the cross who maybe doesn’t even know what gift he is asking for or getting and who has to do nothing in return.
This is a very different kind of gift-giving to the ones to which we are accustomed. Jesus has no calculation, no expectation of return. He is pure gift. Perhaps that’s why I find this Second Word so difficult to grasp. Surely we have to do something to receive the gift? Surely we need to repent, to understand, to amend our lives? Surely we have to do something as a consequence of the gift? Maybe we have to do good works, study Scripture, or attend Church regularly? Jesus’ Second Word shows us something far more radical: while repentance and discipleship are good and healthy signs of spiritual growth, we do not need to do them as some kind of obligatory spiritual balancing of the books that make Jesus’ gift to us worthwhile or repaid. Jesus’ gift is once and for all, without need for reciprocal gifts. Jesus the giver simply is the gift.
Jesus’ Second Word is sometimes called ‘the Gospel within the Gospel’, the giving of unmerited grace and restoration. The heart of this ‘Gospel within the Gospel’, for me at least, is the hardest to hear beat. On the one hand, I don’t feel worthy most of the time to receive Jesus’ gift. I feel obliged to try to return Jesus’ gift with my own. On the other hand, I don’t see many other people as worthy of receiving Jesus’ gift either. The great thing about a Church of hypocrites is that there’s always room for one more. I want to see repentance, or good lives, or something to show me that other people are trying to pay back the great gift that Jesus gives. Yet, both the wonderful and the hardest thing about Jesus being the gift is that we have to do nothing to receive it other than turn to him and receive. That’s all that divides the abusive criminal and the second criminal in the Crucifixion: one shuts Jesus’ gift down, derides it; the other turns and talks, not with the right understanding or the right words or emotions, but simply turns and receives.
So, how do we act when we turn to and meet with Christ? I reckon most of us, consciously or unconsciously, try to bargain. The great Anglican poet of the seventeenth-century, George Herbert imagines such a bargaining in one of the final poems in his work ‘The Temple’. Throughout the work, Herbert invites his hearer to contemplate walking through a church, using the fabric and ornaments to call forth aspects of the Christian life. Towards the end, Herbert comes to the altar and transports his hearers to the heavenly banquet of Christ’s kingdom in a poem entitled Love (III). Herbert begins the poem this way:
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.
"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
The protagonist of the poem cannot believe he is worthy to be at the feast, but Love insists he is. Yet, the protagonist does not rest content with this assurance and argues back and forth with Love in this manner:
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"
"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
Love makes and redeems in the poem, but accepting this gift, this invitation is too hard. The protagonist barters for the gift, offering to serve rather than be a guest. Love will have none of it:
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.
Love is, of course, Christ, and the invitation is the same gift given to the second criminal: “today, you will be with me in paradise.” Love is the giver and the gift; nothing else is required but to “sit and eat” His “meat,” the joy of His eternal presence. Herbert knows and describes well what we all experience in light of Jesus’ amazing, unmerited, and unfathomable gift.
Let us pray:
Lord, when we turn and cry out, you hear us and respond.
Your gift and love exceeds anything we have known
and we struggle just to accept it.
Today, I live to trust in you and your promise
that we will be with you in Paradise.