“Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
One of the great blessings of Sacred Scripture, the celebration of liturgies, and the cycle of the liturgical year is that the same reading or celebration may convey a new message or unveil a different facet. This year, what stands out to me this Palm Sunday are Jesus’ words to the man only known as the good thief.
There are two people to whom Jesus speaks where an imminent foretelling is offered. The first is Peter, who in his eagerness and pride, assures Him – wrongly – that he is prepared to suffer & die for the Lord. Jesus rebukes that pride even as He shares that He has prayed for Peter and that after his conversion, he must strengthen his brothers. Peter recalls these words at the very moment they are fulfilled, realizes his great failure, and weeps bitterly.
The man on cross is at a different point. He is suffering and dying with Jesus, though not by his own choice. Unlike Peter, this criminal knows that he is not a heroic figure – he goes so far as to rebuke the other criminal, who has demanded that Jesus demonstrate His power by coming down from the cross and taking them with Him. The good thief stands in contrast to that man, and to Peter: “the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes”. Like Peter, he cries out – but with a simple petition: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”.
Jesus’ immediate response is one of mercy and assurance: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Even on the cross, after having been abandoned by His friends, betrayed by one of His Apostles, condemned & convicted by His own people, and tortured beyond all reason, Jesus focuses His attention and affection on this anonymous, guilty sinner. And He assures him of an eternal reward that he neither expected nor asked for!
For anyone who has ever felt unlovable, unforgiveable, forsaken, or alone, this brief interaction between the Lord and the good thief should shine out – a glorious beacon of hope. This gift is not solely for him; it is a gift offered to all of us! Peter would discover this a few short days later when he receives a similar reassurance….and that despite his inability to match the agape (unconditional) love of Christ, offering instead phileo (brotherly) love. It would only be towards the end of his live that Peter would finally willingly suffer with Christ, sharing in the same fate of both his savior and the good thief.
Wherever we are on our own journey of relationship with Christ, we are invited today – and throughout this Holy Week – to draw near to the cross. Perhaps we have run away from the Lord in the past, maybe we’ve even abandoned, denied, or betrayed Him. In the good thief we are reminded that it is not too late to ask for – and receive – the mercy and salvation that Jesus so desperately desires to share with us.