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The Second Thief: Recognition of Injustice
On the cross Jesus portrays paradise as a place of justice, a place for those who recognize injustice in the land. To fear God is to understand God as a God of justice.
By Ed Knudson
This meditation was presented at Augustana Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon, on Good Friday evening, March 29, 2013.
Luke 23:39-43 (NRSV)
39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding* him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah?* Save yourself and us!’ 40But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ 42Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into* your kingdom.’ 43He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
One time after a funeral I was riding in the hearse to the cemetery, which was customary at the time. As we got closer to the cemetery the driver struck up a conversation with me. He said he thought it was amazing to believe that someday all these people buried in this cemetery would rise up out of their graves. I said to him, "You are too interested in the mechanics. Faith in God has to do with relationships."
He didn't respond, we had gotten to where we were going. But what I meant was that modern people have a lot of trouble believing some aspects of Christian faith because their minds are focused on the mechanics of how it works. We modern people like machines that we ourselves can control. We like to control things. That's why we often have trouble with what's really most important about life, that is, relationships, relationships with one another and our relationship with God. We finally can't control one another, and we certainly cannot control God. God does what God wants, and God wants justice.
We see that in this text in Luke. It's a conversation between two thieves and Jesus, all experiencing the pain of their cross. The first thief wants Jesus to use his power to control the situation, to save him from the cross. He is really scoffing at Jesus, the text says, something like the driver of the hearse.
But the second thief says something else. He sees that Jesus is like them suffering on a cross but they deserve it and Jesus does not. Jesus is the very image of innocent suffering at the hands of the Roman Empire which wanted to control the people of that time through violence. The second thief recognizes that an injustice is being done here. His words establish a relationship with Jesus. He asks to be remembered by Jesus in his kingdom, a kingdom not of violence but of love and justice.
And then Jesus utters those words which have come down to us as words of both justice and mercy: "You will be with me in paradise." Notice these are words of relationship, "you will be with me". Paradise is being in relationship with Jesus. The word "paradise" refers to a park, or a garden. We might think of it as a garden of relations based on justice.
And the relationships we have in this world should be based on what it was that that second thief was doing. He recognized injustice when he saw it. He reached out to the one who was suffering unjustly.
This is one of the reasons I am so happy to be part of the congregation here at Augustana. We are a church which recognizes injustice in the world and we seek to do something about it. I do not believe a church can be a true church unless it follows the example of this second thief.
Let us pray: "Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom." Amen
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