Good Friday Thoughts….from the Thief

The View from the Cross by James TissotCondemned to die and hanging on a cross. Hoisted upon two wooden boards and on display for crowds to mock and ridicule. An excruciating and shameful way to die, but truth be told, a fitting ending for the life of evil and crime I had led.

My final moments took place at Golgotha – the place of the skull. I never could have imagined that at this very place – surrounded by death, pain, and punishment – everything would change. Golgotha would be not a place of death – but a place of life.

My journey began innocently enough. As a kid, I said the prayers. I participated in the holy days. I honored the traditions. But I was just going through the motions. They didn’t mean anything to me and eventually I rejected the faith of my fathers. My choices brought shame upon my family, and eventually I left home. My father gave me a little money when I left, but all too quickly, I squandered it and was left penniless.

I remember the first time I ever heard Jesus teach. He was telling a story to the crowd….and at first I thought he was talking about me. A young son had asked for his inheritance, left home, and made many bad choices. Soon his money was gone from wild living and he found himself eating pig slop, longing for home. That was my story!

But Jesus’ story continued. This young son returned home, willing to do anything – even be a servant in his father’s house. Instead of anger and punishment, this boy received forgiveness and love from his father. The story reminded me of stories about our God who also offers forgiveness and love…

But that wasn’t my story. I never returned home. I was sure my father would never take me back. And God was certainly too angry with me. I had sinned too much. When the money ran out I started stealing. Little things at first – figs and grapes. Then some grain from a field. Eventually stealing became as common to me as breathing. Usually I didn’t get caught. But sometimes I did. Every time I got caught, I wanted to change. I wanted to make things right. I wanted to choose a different path.

But then I quickly fell back into my old habits. And each time my heart became harder. I cared less and less who I hurt. I became violent, and it seemed nothing and no one could get through.

Except there was that second time I saw Jesus…We both happened to be in Jericho at the same time, and I witnessed him meeting Zacchaeus. Everyone in Jericho knew – and hated – Zacchaeus. He was a tax collector who cheated and stole from anyone and everyone he could. I watched Jesus from the shadows, unsure what he would do to the sinful Zaccheus. I knew that whatever Jesus said and did to him, I deserved the same – but even more so. I was like Zacchaeus – but even worse.

What a shock it was to see Jesus talk – and then eat – with Zacchaeus. Didn’t Jesus know about Zacchaeus? Something must have happened between them because Zacchaeus soon promised to give back everything he had stolen and cheated people out of – times four! And then Jesus said the strangest thing…I remember it like it was yesterday because I have replayed his words everyday since…“Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Salvation – not punishment? Seeking out the lost – not condemning them? Was I….could I….? I didn’t dare think about it. Surely Jesus wouldn’t have said that to me. Or would he? No I couldn’t even imagine it.

I immediately left Jericho and headed back to Jerusalem. I wanted to hide – to get away from Jesus and his disciples. He confused me every time I saw him. I knew there couldn’t be any hope for me. I was too far gone. And in case anyone worried about how “bad” I was – I made sure to show them. And so my life continued. Days turned into weeks and then into months of stealing. Treachery. Pain. Violence.

That’s how I ended up in prison last night. Caught again for stealing. And for hurting that old man who got in my way. Too bad for that old guy – but he should’ve known better. There I sat. Thrown into an underground prison, and condemned to die on Friday, the day before Passover.

How appropriate. In a weird way I was almost thankful. I would not have to “celebrate” one more time of God rescuing his people – my people – from slavery in Egypt so long ago. I was the one in slavery now – slavery of sin, of poor choices, of pain. But it was too late for me – even God couldn’t rescue me. So why celebrate what he did so long ago when I wasn’t even free?

My dark thoughts in that pit were interrupted by the quiet murmuring of a prisoner next to me. At first I thought it was the incoherent ramblings of a crazed criminal, but then I began to recognize the words. “O Lord God who delivers me. By day I cry out and at night I pray before you. Pay attention to my cry for help. For my life is filled with troubles…” These were the words of the Psalmist. I recalled my grandfather praying them over me as a young child.

But the words weren’t the only thing I recognized. That voice…there was something about that voice that sounded familiar. Where had I heard it before? I must have nodded off to sleep trying to remember that voice, for I was awoken early in the morning by the guards yelling – not at me – but at the prisoner next to me. “You! You who call yourself the Son of God – the Christ – get up. You must appear before Pilate for subverting our nation and claiming to be the king. Get up!”

That voice last night….it…it was Jesus! I had spent the night in prison next to Jesus. It was he who had been praying. And no sooner had I realized who he was, then he was gone….brought before Pilate for…insurrection? For blasphemy?

I remembered hearing the rumors about Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem at the beginning of the week. It seemed the entire city was in an uproar, wondering, “Who is this?” The crowds had answered, “It was Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee. The one who had performed miracles.” I knew him too. He was the one whose teaching had pierced my heart. The one whose prayers I had heard the night before.

My thoughts were interrupted when the guards came for me. It was time. Time to carry my cross of crucifixion to Golgotha. Time to face the punishment I deserved. In a strange way I felt relieved. Once above ground, I blinked several times, getting used to the early morning light. Two other prisoners stood waiting, with crosses in hand. One was bloodied from beatings, and wore a strange crown upon his head. He looked vaguely familiar but his features were so misshapen from the beatings, I couldn’t be sure.

We began the long walk to Golgotha, surrounded by soldiers. Many women walked alongside us, mourning and wailing. “Do not weep for me, but for yourselves and your children,” one of the prisoners replied. That voice…could it….was it? Those lining the streets shouted, “Crucify him! Hail, king of the Jews!”

King…of the Jews? King of the Jews? Jesus?? That disfigured face…the crown of thorns…the familiar voice….it was him. Jesus.

Soon after Jesus fell to the ground, unable to go on and the prisoners grabbed a stranger from the crowds. “You – what’s your name?”

“Simon. Simon from Cyrene.”

“Carry his cross.”

At last we were there. It seemed an entire day had passed yet it was only about 9 in the morning. The other criminal and myself were nailed to our crosses on either side of Jesus – one on the right, and one on the left. Two outlaws flanking…him. A prophet. A teacher. An innocent man. The anointed one. The sign above him read, “King of the Jews.”

The crowds passing by, the chief priests, elders and experts in the law all taunted and mocked Jesus. “Save yourself! Come down off that cross. He saved others, but he cannot save himself. If he comes down, we will believe in him! If you are God’s Son, come down from that cross!”

Even the other criminal who hung beside him joined in. “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and save us.” The words contrasted sharply with the cries of the women who had walked alongside us, and now knelt before him.

Jesus’ lips were moving and I turned to listen. His words had always given me comfort…and hope. “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

I closed my eyes as he spoke. His words again penetrated my heart. Forgiveness. That seemed to always be present when Jesus spoke. When I opened my eyes again…was I imagining things? Maybe it was the pain…but the sky – it had grown dark – in the middle of the day.

The taunting from the other outlaw continued, even as the day wore on and the pain became unbearable. I could take it no longer. “You should fear God and not speak! Are you under the same sentence of condemnation? And we rightly so, for we are getting punished for what we did, but this man has done nothing wrong.”

And then, thinking back to all the times I heard Jesus speak, remembering his words, remembering my sins, admitting my guilt, acknowledging his truth…I turned to Jesus. “Jesus, remember me when you come in your Kingdom.”

He turned, with both agony and love across his face, and smiled. “I tell you the truth today, you will be with me in paradise.”

Tears streamed down my face. Tears of relief….of hope….of peace….of freedom. And my heart welled up with joy….authentic joy. I cried out in worship, the words of the psalms I had learned as a boy came forth. “I will exalt you, my God the King; I will praise your name for ever and ever. Every day I will praise you and extol your name for ever and ever. Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom.”

I stopped when I heard Jesus speak again. His voice was weaker and his breath was short. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

Immediately I joined in with him, knowing well the words of Psalm 22. “I groan in prayer, but help seems far away…” I continued praying through the whole psalm, unaware whether Jesus continued or not. “But you, O Lord, do not remain far away! You are my source of strength! Hurry and help me!…”

The earth began to shake, the rocks split apart, and I finished praying the psalm Jesus had begun. “Let all the people of the earth acknowledge the Lord and turn to him! Let all the nations worship you! For the Lord is king and rules over the nations. All of the thriving people of the earth will join the celebration and worship; all those who are descending into the grave will bow before him, including those who cannot preserve their lives. A whole generation will serve him; they will tell the next generation about the sovereign Lord. They will come and tell about his saving deeds; they will tell a future generation what he has accomplished.”

“It is finished,” Jesus cried and he gave up his spirit.

“Surely this was God’s son,” the nearby Centurion cried. And I knew it to be true. He was. And it was finished, at least for me. The heartache, brokenness, despair and sin. And the only thing left in its place was joy. Authentic joy. I repeated the words he had told me, “I tell you this today, you will be with me in paradise.”

This post was initially published on Scot McKnight’s “Jesus Creed” blog on Patheos. You can see the original post here.