From the Gospel of Luke
One of the criminals hanging there abused him: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us as well.” But the other spoke up and rebuked him. “Have you no fear of God at all?” he said. “You got the same sentence as he did, but in our case we deserved it: we are paying for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He answered him, “In truth I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
What is paradise like?
I often make paradise to be a bit too small—thinking of it as the restoration of a loved one, the righting of past injustices by family and others, or the liberation from physical and emotional pain that seems to have dragged on forever. Or perhaps our paradise is an idyllic setting, with warm breezes and sandy beaches, or even our own version of the beatific vision, with all the angels and saints surrounding us, marching in the heavenly army.
Our theology reminds us that Paradise will be more than we could ever imagine; more than we could ever expect; more than we will ever comprehend. Whenever you think you know what Paradise is, stop for a moment, and remember that God has more in store for you.
There are some things we know quite certainly about paradise: there will be beauty, there will be good, there will be truth. And most of all, there will be the trinity, the incomprehensible mystery of our faith, fully unveiled—the mystery that we are only given a taste of in the Eucharist.
But, with my attachment to sensory experience, I often wonder what this paradise might feel like. How can I, as a finite, mortal creature have some glimpse of the love than an almighty God might show? The answer seems strange, because it is so very uncomfortable—it is through the cross. And there are few scenes of cross that show so beautifully our Lord’s love for us and the way to paradise.
The First Thief
I suspect that the first criminal, a thief by tradition, had a concept of paradise much like the one I often fall into—a glorified living that is without pain, without anxiety. And who can blame him? Even the psalmist writes, “Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction?” The first thief reacts to Jesus as I suspect we all do naturally—scared, tired, afraid. In attempted consolation many will say, “Just trust Him, just believe in Him.” Yet platitudes like these cannot take away form the reality of the cross in front of us. We see no tangible results.
How difficult it is for us to accept being emotionally ragged, drawn through the most difficult circumstances, and given nothing but a cross to die on. Our suffering continues, we fall into the same old habits, and we are begging to be taken down from our crosses.
The Gospel reading moves quickly into the second thief’s reaction, but I suspect that his reaction was only possible because of how Jesus reacted to the first.
Does it ever occur to us that Jesus offers his love to the first thief as freely as he offers it to the greatest saints? Since Jesus is the Son of God, it is impossible for this not to be the case. What tenderness did the second thief see in the eyes of Jesus, as the first thief berated him? What tears might Jesus have cried for this first thief that moved the second thief to speak prophetically. Jesus understood the first thief’s flaws, his lack of protection in his growing up, his lack of schooling and a stable home. Jesus knew his lack of a good father, the mother who stood there and took abuse. Jesus knew the intricacies of the first thief’s story better than anyone, and he sees through that story to look at each and every one of us with tenderness. No matter how we treat Him, no matter how we abuse Him, he hangs on his cross and lovingly tells us how precious we are to him.
The love Jesus shows the first thief is much like that of a child—it is tender, innocent and loyal. We often overlook the true and loyal love of children to their parents. A child will show the deepest loyalty, even though it is often treated wrongly. But I believe our Lord means it when he says unless we become like the least of these children, we shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Some of us turn away from looking at this kind of suffering, because we know the kind of pain it brings back to us. But bearing with that pain in the presence of our God is the very passion being lived out before us. We do not learn of Christ’s love by simply feeling sorry for the millions of the starving and hungry, but through our willingness to love and protect them.
We can choose to look away or we can choose to look into the suffering of Christ. And when we look into it, do we not find ourselves moved to love and protect. This is true for others who are easy to love, but it is especially hard for us to love criminals, and even more—ourselves. And Jesus offers us the ability to enter into his love, and shows this especially through the second thief.
I wonder if the second thief would have reacted the way he did until he saw Jesus demonstrate such compassion to the first. The second was a criminal, after all; chances are he wasn’t one of Jesus’ disciples. He says openly that he knew he deserved his sentence.
Yet the second thief was given such an incredible glimpse into our Lord’s passion. He saw Jesus suffering and reacting in love and tenderness because he chose to. And through the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father AND the Son, he was invited to follow our Lord’s example of love. And it was only through entering into our Lord’s passion that the second thief could show such love to our Lord. Our Lord is so generous to each of us, because every day, almost every hour, he invites us to enter into his Passion even deeper.
The second thief’s courage to speak out was not from pride, but from the Holy Spirit. He asked for the smallest portion—to be remembered. He did not ask to be free from his suffering; he simply asked to be with Him who understood all suffering.
The second thief also saw the sign above Jesus’ head- the INRI, Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews—but he didn’t ask what his kingdom was like. He knew that a kingdom is often symbolized by the king who rules it. Interestingly, he did not ask, “Will there be freedom from pain?” He only saw such tremendous love and knew that this love was worth the agony and death of a cross.
And on the Cross, the second thief showed us the way to respond to suffering, to look at it, and to protect. He did everything he possible could to protect such a beautiful and tender love—he rebuked the first, and asked Jesus gently to remember him—not what he did for him, but just him. And it is through reacting to Jesus the way he did, that we see all of our paths to paradise.
But we must also realize that the first thief is not beyond hope. He was just not ready to receive the kind of love that Jesus offered. And he, like each and every one of us must be patient with ourselves to become more like the second. We can trust in his patience and loyalty with us as continue along our path.
The first thief cautions us, however, of how careful we must be not to turn our eyes away from Jesus’ passion happening all around us. In every kindness (especially when it is done out of faith, hope and love) how much we hurt when someone hurls it back at us. How tempting it is to make the choice never to be hurt again, to ask to come down from our cross rather than deal with the scandal and embarrassment of patience and trust.
The good thief, on the other hand, offers us tremendous hope. Truly him and all the saints give us hope that as we bear our crosses, we might show to others and ourselves the same kind of love that Jesus showed on the cross.
Today mass is not said, because we are still privileged to enter into his passion through our veneration of the cross and especially on our tongues in Holy Communion. It is today that we dwell in the saving power of the cross, and say to the world, as the second thief did, “This man has done nothing wrong.”
- Be with him today in your pain, be with him in your deepest longing for love, and say even more gently, even more intimately, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”
To be in paradise is to be with Jesus. It is to be totally beyond what we could ever imagine. It is to be immersed in the kind of love that only Jesus could show, and that path to Paradise is only with Him in his Passion.