By Stuart Powell
Each of the Gospels rushes through Jesus’ earthly ministry until they come to the cross. Then they slow down the narrative, bringing us the full impact of Jesus’ passion. Luke shared the details of a conversation Jesus had with the two criminals as they hung on their crosses on Good Friday.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:39-42).
Have you ever thought about what was wrong with the request of the criminal who spoke first? Many people throughout the ages have come to Jesus with a similar request for salvation. Why was this request different? Look how Luke describes the delivery of those words . . . those insults.
They weren’t the words of a humble man. They were angry words. They weren’t intended to be answered. They were “hurled” at Jesus, during a time of suffering, to inflict more pain. The first criminal knew his fate; no one was taken down from a Roman cross alive. The only question he faced was, How long until I die? He responded to helplessness by striking out at the closest “weakness” he could find; he found it in Jesus, who was suffering the same fate. “The King of the Jews” was written on the sign over Jesus’ head. That charge both condemned and mocked Jesus as he hung above the creation that proclaimed his glory.
The other criminal saw Jesus as an innocent man. He may not have fully understood what was happening, but he somehow knew the man dying next to him was as great as the sign proclaimed. Maybe the pain he endured led the second criminal to understand the power in Jesus’ death. The second criminal “hurled” nothing at Jesus. Instead, he humbly petitioned the King of kings to remember him.
We should focus on the vision of the second criminal as we gather around the table. We should focus on the willing sacrifice of an innocent man, of the eternal King, to provide the cleansing and restoration of every person who receives his grace. As you eat of the bread to remember his body and drink from the cup to recall his blood, speak these words of surrender to our Savior: “Save us!”
Stuart Powell lives outside of Terre Haute, Indiana, where he serves with the North Side Christian Church.