Verily, today shalt thou be with me in paradise.
Our scene has three condemned men on a hilltop, nailed to Roman crosses. Below them are their executioners, their mourning families and friends, and a ragtag crowd of hecklers, whose barbed taunts and jibes are particularly aimed at the man in the middle. But all that is background. The real action is in the words passed among the condemned men themselves.
One of the co-condemned launches his own insult. Like Jesus, he is pinned to a cross with nails through his flesh. Like Jesus, he is fighting for his next breath. HIs taunt comes from agony—and anger. All his life, we can imagine, he has felt unfairly treated—and has lashed back. His attitude is: The world owes me.
Struggling for breath, he spits out the words. “Some messiah! Save us!”
So far, so predictable. And then our story takes its unexpected turn. From Jesus’ other side, the third condemned man speaks.
“Have you no fear of God? We deserve what we are getting, but Jesus is innocent.”
Then, addressing Jesus, he continues, “Remember me when you enter your kingdom.”
Who is this man? A common criminal, not important enough for his name or his story to have come down to us. And yet, he seems to be the only one in the whole passion drama who understands Jesus’ messiahship. The disciples will not catch on until later. But on this hill of tortures, in the midst of his own agonizing execution, he recognizes the dying man beside him as a king, whose kingdom is not vulnerable to death. He, and apparently only he, understands that he is witnessing, not the death of another messianic hope, but the fulfillment of that hope.
Jesus answers with a promise: “Not only will I remember you, but you will be with me. In paradise. Today.”
Paradise. The peaceful garden. The place of rest. The state of living in union with God. The ancient story in Genesis tells of union broken and paradise lost. In the days and years to come, the followers of Jesus will bear witness to union restored and paradise regained through his life, death and resurrection. They will speak of being “in Christ” and of Christ being in us. Richard Rohr says this state of being in Christ “is something you fall into more than you manufacture … [It] comes without any stipulations except the falling itself … We will only allow ourselves to fall … when we give up control …”
But today, Jesus’ followers do not yet comprehend. Today, only the condemned man at Jesus’ side is ready to give up control and to pray, “Remember me.”
We can have that place of rest, in Christ, in paradise. Today.