"Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise."--St. Luke 23:48.
It is commonly said that one of the saddest incidents of our Saviour's Crucifixion is the fact that He was crucified between two thieves. This association with actual transgressors must, it is said, have made His blameless soul shrink with aversion: to be confused with vulgar highwaymen must have been the summit of indignity. This is a natural reflection for most of us who are selfish, perhaps a little snobbish, narrowly eager to maintain our own reputations. We forget, however, that Jesus Christ was unselfish to the last degree, that in His course through the world He had been afraid of touching not even lepers; that everything human, because it was human, was dear to Him. When, therefore, the three crosses were in place, when the screams and revilings of the two victims had subsided to moans, when He was permitted to think of the situation, I am sure that He turned sympathetic eyes upon the poor, erring men who were outwardly in the same plight with Himself. First, there was the sense of fellowship. He was not alone. We must believe that our Lord craved human fellowship; we must believe that it was therefore sharp sorrow to remember that all His friends had deserted Him when most He needed their sympathy, their human touch; we must believe that it was solace to find that the criminals of that day were not to suffer in some other spot, but that He and they were to be side by side bound together by the bonds of a similar misfortune. He had spent His whole life trying to help people who needed help. He had never shunned poverty and sorrow, if poverty and sorrow could bring Him close to troubled men. Here were these two thieves: they needed help as few men on earth can need it. Had He been comfortably beneath, among the staring, gossipping crowd, He might have helped by encouragement, by warning, by heavenly comfort. But they would not have felt that He knew what it meant to be crucified. As it was, He was suffering exactly as they were suffering. His heart ached for them--and they might perhaps understand His sympathy; for was He not literally sharing their pain? I am sure, then, that it was to Jesus Christ no added shame that He and the thieves perished together. Since He and they must suffer, I am convinced that He was glad to be as close as possible to their despair.
Now let us pause to get a clear view of the scene. It was a pitiless age. When gentlewomen could delight in gladiatorial butchery, we can imagine with what cold-blooded interest a mob would watch the dying of three crucified men. We may believe that not a head was turned away, that not a shudder escaped the lips, that while the bodies were writhing, and the shrieks were loudest, the crowd was eagerly still to enjoy every item of the excruciating pain which was to end only in death. When the victims grew quiet, with sheer weariness, when the sensations of the mob were sated, then the tongues of the mob were unloosed. They began to fling out their coarse jibes, and laugh hoarsely at their own wit. Naturally, the height of humour, as they understood it, was the fact that only a few days before this Jesus had been talking about being a King. Even they, shrewd as they were, had been nearly taken in by the power of His kindness as He had healed their sick, and snatched the dying from death. Now here He was dying between two common robbers. They laughed, they railed. "Ha!" they scoffed, "thou that destroyest the temple and buildest it in three days, save thyself, and come down from the cross." Even the Jewish gentlemen who were there smiled grimly among themselves, and said, "He saved others, himself he cannot save." Then most gruesome of all, one of the robbers, roused from his pain by the jeering, cast the same jest in his teeth:
"Art not thou the Christ?" he sneered, "save thyself and us." Then instantly the other robber found his manhood and spoke out of his misery a brave and high rebuke. "Dost thou not even fear God," he said, "seeing thou art in the same condemnation? We indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man hath done nothing amiss." The boldness, the sincerity, the manliness of the words evidently put the mob to silence. The conviction of the robber for an instant convinced the crowd. And there was a hush over the scene. Then some inspiring event happened in the stillness. Did Jesus turn to look with grateful honour upon the brave man? Did the love shine out of His weary eyes with such brilliancy that the robber's soul caught fire, and burned with irresistible love in response? No one can tell; but I think so. For the man answered with tones which still thrill us, "O Jesus, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom." And Jesus whispered to him, "Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in Paradise."
This penitence of the dying robber is sometimes cited as evidence of the value of death-bed repentance. Repentance, whenever it may come, is a vital thing. One word of warning must be given to those who think that they may put off setting themselves right with God. To be scared by approaching death into saying that one is sorry for all one's past is not repentance. It is only cowardice fleeing from the dreaded consequences of one's sin. When the soul wakes up in another world, it will probably laugh to itself and say: "Well, I was badly scared. I take my repentance all back. I do not care at all." I draw attention to this possibility to make clear the contrast which the true penitence of the dying robber presents. He was no coward fleeing results. He acknowledged that he deserved his hard fate. He was not making bargains. He was above all that. His whole heart went out to Jesus. He loved Him. He longed to be with Him.
Another thought I wish to emphasize. Down among the crowd was perhaps some Gamaliel, a man of blameless past. True, he was indifferent, hard-hearted, unresponsive; but he had no actual crimes to his account. On one of the crosses was a law-breaker, a man whose past was soiled; and Jesus was admitting him to His kingdom, with not a word for the other--the one whom the world would call the better man. What does it mean? Well, among other things, it means this: What you have accomplished, the virtues done, and neatly folded away in napkins, will not help you. What alone helps you at any mo men of time or eternity, is what you are.
For what you have been may have left you self-complacent, careless, impervious to good influences. You may be trying to live with the aid of the account in a bank which years ago went into the hands of receivers. But if today you are doing exactly right, if your heart is full of love, if it is fixed with the determination to do exactly right, if you have prayed to God that He fuse your little will with His inexhaustible power, then you are secure. Your past will not count against you. To you, too, Jesus will say, though He pass by many who seem more righteous than you, "Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in Paradise."
It is again the King who speaks. The love is evident enough. And with the note of authority in the voice of the dying Jesus the power is also evident. For one resplendent instant the penitent thief must have forgotten that He was in the hurly-burly of a Roman execution. The crown of thorns must have melted into a crown of celestial light. The outstretched arms, so sternly fastened, must have seemed arms spread wide in blessing and in power. He saw the King. He knew himself to be loved--so loved that Jesus was to share even death with him--so loved that where Jesus went he was to go. As Jesus went with him to the depths of human woe, so he was to go with Jesus to the peaks of divine joy. Now at last he knew love. He knew the love of man. He knew the love of God.
So we reach the climax of this second word of Jesus our King which He spoke from His throne. The love of God is awaiting eagerly one word of consent from us, that we may share His joy. He breaks through no barriers which we raise against Him. He respects our independence. Though He longs for us, as a mother longs for her absent child, He leaves us free to choose Him for ourselves. But when we turn to Him even a little, He comes running to meet us, as the story of the Prodigal Son truly tells. He folds us in the arms of His almighty Love. We know Him at last. We are destined to be with Him--in Earth, in Paradise, in Heaven--for ever!
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