The Penitent Thief Michael Gross CP September 23, 2018


32 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus[a] there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”]][b] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah[c] of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him,[d] “This is the King of the Jews.”

39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding[e] him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah?[f] Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into[g] your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”


When I was teaching social studies, especially American history, I loved to play the “what if” game with the students. Kids are really good with the “what if” game because they see things that are not ingrained in us that are older people. Their experiences in life have not pigeon-holed them into little boxes that are hard to get out of. For example, what if the Confederacy had invented the repeating rifle? What would that have done to the length of the war, loss of life, economically, socially and politically? It also allows the teacher to get an idea of how well they understand the era and the conflict.

Another “what if” question I have received often in the ministry is, what if (insert person who was bad like Hitler, Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson, Osama Bin Laden,) confessed on their death bed would they go to heaven? Now that is an interesting question isn’t it. How would you answer that? It’s a conundrum, a can of worms that many people don’t like to think about. Because if the answer is no, then where does the line get drawn that keeps people out of heaven? How bad do you really have to be to get kicked out of heaven and go to hell or the land of Hades? If the answer is yes, then do we really want to go to heaven if all those people are there and, why do I have to be good, if everybody goes to heaven.

Now maybe you have already worked this out in your mind and you have reasoned that the simple answer would be to say, that’s God’s decision and I’m not going to worry about it. But the scary answer is when Jesus said in one of the most famous passages, John 3:16-17 “16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Now the context is when Nicodemus was asking how he could be born again. All of this then brings us to the conversation in the gospel message today.

Jesus was being executed as a criminal amongst criminals. He was being treated like all the other criminals. People stood around and made fun of him, mocked him asking him to save himself if he was truly the Messiah or the King of the Jews as the inscription read above his head. His clothes were being gambled for because to some they were somewhat valuable, or the people were in desperate need. You have seen the movies in which some people would take the boots off of soldiers because their shoes were worn out or rotted. Even one of the other criminals was chastising Jesus, if you are the Messiah save yourself and us and get us down from here.

Yet there was also the other thief, the one who seemed to be very humble and rebuked the other thief. “Have you no fear of God”, he said. This is an interesting statement from someone who is hanging on the cross and is condemned just as the other two. All three are criminals, yet this one man seems to get it. The artist for this picture, Lisle Gwynn Garrity, asks the question, “How did he know?” How did this thief know who Jesus was? Had he seen him perform miracles? Had he heard him preach in the synagogue? Was he there when the 5,000 were fed and did he eat some of the fish and bread himself? Or was it when he heard Jesus say, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” Whatever the reason this man had come to realize that Jesus was more than a common criminal.

Look at the picture, it is a hand nailed to the cross. The same hand that had taken that which was not his. The hand that had sinned over and over, the hand of a professional thief. The hand that broke the 8th commandment “You shall not steal.” (Exodus 20:15) The man then says something truly remarkable, he tells the other thief that they had done the crime and deserve the punishment, but that Jesus was innocent. Jesus had done nothing to deserve the death that he was experiencing, a death as a criminal. By telling the other thief that he was deserving of his punishment he confessed to being a thief, breaking the Law, not just civil law but the Law of Moses.

He then asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. Jesus was dying, there was not going to be any kingdom, what was he talking about? He was claiming Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. The thief had just confessed in two different ways. He confessed to be a thief and deserving eternal damnation and he confessed that Jesus was Lord. The thief was not on his death bed, but he was on his death cross. There was no getting out of this pickle, he was going to die, just like Jesus. He confessed that he was a sinner, he confessed that Jesus was Lord and what did Jesus say, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Jesus just punched the ticket of the penitent thief to enter the pearly gates. The thief by his actions in confession of sin and who his Lord Savior were, is going to heaven. The thief’s death was imminent just like Jesus. Yet this really makes us think, doesn’t it? What are we to understand from this last-minute confession? The answer must be yes. The passage that I chose from 1 Timothy shares a little more about this dilemma. Paul is telling Timothy to fight the good fight. Now this is not a boxing match, but more like a race. He tells him to complete the race by seeking to, “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.”  This was Timothy’s calling. God through Jesus sacrifice had called Timothy to this reward by grace and through faith by confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior eternal life was that reward.

In this instance the what if game can drive us crazy if we are worried about who is in and who is out and what all the rules are to get in and out. The reality is the grace of God has already called us to our eternal resting place. Paul said that just as Jesus confessed who he was before Pilate, so we too should worry about ourselves, fight the good fight by being like Jesus. Follow the commandments and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Paul is talking about Jesus when he wrote, “he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. 16 It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion.” (15b-16)

The love of God is sufficient and that is all that matters. Yet we are to have a response to this wonderful grace. Paul reminds Timothy to remind the rich of this generation to help others and to share what we have, especially our money. I know we would never like to admit it, but folks most of us are the rich of this generation. We have food to eat, we have a roof over our head, we have clothes and transportation. We have health insurance or medicare, we have cell phones and internet access, we have access to hospitals and libraries, parks and museums and TVs.

“They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19 thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” (18-19) The penitent thief realized what was at stake, at that moment on the cross and took full advantage to confess that knowledge to Jesus. Because of that confession, he was rewarded with a place in paradise. When we realize what we have, we too are rewarded with a place in paradise. There are no “what ifs” when we place our trust in Jesus. May we confess that good news to everyone. Amen.

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