"Verily I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise."
(St. Luke 23:43)
The Cross, with its precious weight, has been raised into its place. Jesus is now lifted up and exposed to the gaze of the multitude. It was the occasion of a fresh outburst of calumnies.
"Then were there two thieves crucified with Him, the one on the right hand, and the other on the left. And they that passed by railed on Him, wagging their heads and saying, Thou that destroyest the temple and buildest it in three days, save Thyself. If Thou be the Son of God, come down from the Cross; Likewise also the chief priests mocking Him with the scribes and elders, said, He saved others, Himself He cannot save. If He be the King of Israel, let Him come down from the Cross, and we will believe Him: for He said I am the Son of God. The thieves also that were crucified with Him, cast the same in His teeth" (St. Matt, xxvii. 39-45).
The "verily I say," with which our Lord introduces this second utterance from the Cross, calls attention to the Person and to the authority of Him who speaks, and thus throws into bolder relief the contrast between His most pure and holy lips, and those words of blasphemy and falsehood which the lips of wicked men were uttering against Him. As then we behold Him who endured such contradiction of sinners against Himself, it is as the Word of God, Truth Incarnate that we contemplate Him. We mark the movement of these dying lips, drawn with pain and pallid from loss of blood, as they bestow upon penitence the gracious promise of this Word, and we reflect that they are the lips of Truth, nay of the Truth itself and of the eternal Wisdom of God. All that was ever spoken of old in the revelation of the mind of God, through the Scriptures and the Prophets, was the utterance of these lips, the lips of Him who is by nature the Word of God. "The lip of truth," says the Proverb, "shall be established forever" (Prov. xii. 19), and these lips themselves have said, "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My Word shall not pass away" (St. Matt. v. 35). And again, the Proverb says, "A divine sentence is in the lips of the king" (Prov. xvi. 10). But this is the King of kings whose sentence shall be pronounced upon all men at the last great day.
It is in the light of this consideration that we must weigh what Jesus suffered and still suffers from the lips of men. Our evil words, however uttered, and to whomsoever addressed, are in reality directed against the Person of Christ. The wrong they inflict upon ourselves, and the injury they work upon our neighbor, are nothing compared with this, that they contradict Him who is the Eternal Truth. In our falsehoods, our irreverent speech, our unseemly conversation, we take up the calumnies and contradictions of the jeering multitude about the Cross, and we, like the thieves, "cast the same in His teeth."
Yet think of the patience with which the Word of God Himself submits to this outrage: before Pilate, silent; before Herod, silent; before false accusers, answering never a word. O the mystery of that condescension, in which Truth Eternal submits in silence to be thrice denied by St. Peter, to bear with the "Hail, Master," of Judas, as the traitor's lips are pressed against His cheek, to be examined by the High Priest, to be made to listen to the mockery of the soldiers as in the early morning of this day, to be impudently questioned by Herod, to be asked by Pilate, "What is Truth?" to accept without question the sentence of His unjust condemnation which the clamor of the angry multitude have exacted from a cowardly judge.
Let us look into that Face, and as we consider those lips so accustomed to silence under wrong, let us mark how He makes reparation for our sins of speech. "Woe is me, for I am undone because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips" (Isaiah vi. 5). O Jesus, patient and silent under wrong, be Thou the atonement for my sins of word.
And now let us consider the legacy which the lips of Jesus have left us. The Gospel contains the record not only of His works, but of the words of Him who spake as never man spake. At the very beginning of His public life, immediately after the temptation in the wilderness, He goes to His own city, Nazareth, and in the synagogue, standing up to read, finds that place where it is written in the Prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He hath anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor, He hath sent Me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord" (St. Luke iv. 18). And then, as sitting down, He applied this prophecy to Himself; all bare Him witness and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth. As He began His earthly ministry, so now with like gracious words He is closing it. Let us then, in this solemn hour, call to memory all the holy doctrines which He taught; the sublime precepts of the Sermon on the Mount, the inexhaustible treasures of the Parables, the simplicity of that wisdom in which He gave meek answer to His adversaries, and laid bare their hypocrisy, the woes spoken in sternness, yet in merciful warning against Scribe and Pharisee, the love in which He shrank not from declaring the eternal punishment which must overtake the impenitent, all the high discourse concerning the Kingdom of God, and the unflinching and uncompromising enunciation of the nature and the necessity of those Sacraments without which we have no union with Him, and through which alone we can share in His victory over death, and be made partakers of His everlasting life.
Truly was it said, "Never man spake like this man" (St. John vii. 46), nor is it wonderful that outside the pale of the Church, and even outside the number of those who call themselves by the Christian name, the world itself recognizes in Jesus the greatest and the most sublime of all teachers, the supreme Master of the spiritual life, who while He could challenge the world to convict Him of the slightest moral fault, is still for mankind at large the only perfect model, the only infallible interpreter of conscience.
Yet how much more is Christ than this! Great as is this Teacher, if He were no more than a teacher, the words here spoken to the dying thief would have left him uncomforted, unabsolved. Let us put ourselves in the place of this penitent as St. Luke brings the scene before us.
"And one of the malefactors railed on Him, saying, if Thou he the Christ, save Thyself and us, but the other answering, rebuked him, saying, dost thou not fear God; seeing thou art in the same condemnation, and we indeed justly for we receive the due reward of our deeds, but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, to-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise" (St. Luke xxiii. 39-44).
To this man, knowing his death to be so near, his conscience now aroused so that he sees his sins and the wretchedness of his wasted life, something more is needed than moral teaching, even though it were the most sublime that lips of man could utter. Does he not confess it? "Lord, remember is his prayer. But what mere man could have met this need? Which one of all the world's teachers could have given the definite assurance spoken by Christ: "Verily I say unto thee, to-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise"?
Let us note well, for everything turns upon this, the difference between Christ and every other teacher. Others were at best seekers after Truth. Christ is the Truth. Others professed themselves learners of a truth greater than themselves. Christ proclaims Himself the way, the truth, and the life. Others proclaimed a message. Christ proclaims His own Person. It is because Christ is His own message that the dying thief finds in Him all that he needs. His prayer is not, "Master, instruct me," but, "Lord, remember me." What he craves is a relationship to the Person of Christ which shall abide to his endless happiness in a Kingdom never to be destroyed.
And how completely this prayer is answered. For, first, there is no place left for doubt or misgiving, but the promise is made to rest upon the authority of His Godhead: "Verily, I say." It is not general, but definite and particular: "I say unto thee." It is not a remote prospect, a vague and distant hope: "To-day" it shall be fulfilled. It is not, finally, the mere sharing in the good things of His Kingdom, but it is a personal union with Himself: "thou shalt be with Me." The authority of God, the power of God, the love of God, are all declared in this brief Word.
As we note, then, these words of authority which fall from the dying lips of Jesus, let us weigh well the difference between merely hearing about the Truth, and being brought, as was the penitent thief, under its power. "The Voice of the Lord is mighty in operation" (Psalm xxix. 4). That Voice, through which creation itself sprang into being, is still active and operative. It lives on in the Sacraments which it has created, and through which, by the power of the Holy Ghost, Jesus works the marvels of His will. It is one thing to hear, as the Jews of old heard through the lips of their prophets, revelations concerning the power of Christ; it is another, and an infinitely greater to be brought into contact with that power as Christ Himself speaks His word of authority. Surely there is but one attitude for us sinners to-day, and that is the attitude in which we place ourselves by the side of the penitent thief, and make his prayer our own. As we take this position in lowly penitence, who but must long for a word from the Crucified, bringing to the soul the like definite and personal assurance to that which He granted to this penitent at the Cross? O perhaps to someone here there comes to-day, for the first time, the knowledge of this priceless legacy of our Saviour's authoritative word, still living, still operative through the ministry of His Church. What will be the joy of such an one if before the Easter dawn, nay, if "to-day" the word of pardon such as that which gladdened the penitent thief shall be his. And why should not this be? No sins are too great for this absolving word. They were His own lips which said: "Whosesoever sins ye remit they are remitted." O blessed word of reconciliation, word of deliverance, word of power! O precious word "I absolve thee," whose efficacy is in the Blood of Jesus Christ! "O great and wonderful Sacrament of pardon! What marvels hast thou wrought, what evils rooted out, what good things planted in their place! What wondrous changes dost thou work! The lost thou recoverest, the diseased thou healest, the dead thou quickenest, thou restorest all things! 0 word of pardon, winning back the favor of God, wiping out debts, adorning the mind, treasuring merit, dispensing peace, yielding the increase of glory! Of sinners thou makest saints, entwining their crowns, and placing palms in their hands! O Jesu, Saviour of the perishing, Captain who leadest back the erring, how tender and how mighty Thou art while working these marvels in the most holy laver of Thy Blood!"
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