Today You Will Be With Me in Paradise

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”-The Gospel According to Luke 23:39–43

Only in Luke. For whatever it’s worth. It seemed necessary to mention that first, although I do not intend to write on the uniqueness of Luke’s Gospel, especially its crucifixion narrative, and how that might frame this familiar story. Let it suffice to snuff out any lingering misconceptions that because a story is prominent it is also prevalent. No. The famous, “Today you will be with me in Paradise…” Yeah, only in Luke. And every part of his crucifixion tale is unique to him. And. Luke bears nothing of any of the other gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion. Every saying of Jesus on the cross in Luke happens only in Luke.

“Father, forgive them…”. Only in Luke

“Today you will be with me in Paradise” Only in Luke

“Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit” Only in Luke

“Why have you forsaken me?” NOT in Luke.

And of course, John is unique as well.

I read, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” this morning and heard it differently than I’ve ever heard it before. (I am sure my observation is not original. I could be, but am not, better read)

After all, what is “Paradise”?

No, it is not domestic bliss. (Really?!) It is not a Caribbean Island or whatever your own “happy place” is, be it a hiking trail or a golf course. Should we just let Dante define it for us? Is it heaven, actually or metaphorically?

The word is used three times in the New Testament. Once in Luke. Once in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, where Paul uses the term interchangeably with “third heaven”. (What is the first and second heaven?) Paul does not give us any interior description of Paradise, like Moses’ vivid and detailed representation of the Tabernacle, down to the exact cubits. Paul relays his personal subjective experience of what must have been a frightening vision of, well, God. And I’m fairly sure that there are no words in any tongue that could describe a vision of heaven itself. It certainly is not a golf course. Personally, I think he’s describing his experience of his own conversion on the road to Damascus. But in any case, he can’t be sure that his vision was more than a vision, that is, he can’t be sure he saw heaven as it actually is.

The third and final time the word is used is in, of course, the book of Revelation. And I’ll spare you the gory contextual details and get to the point. There, the word is unmistakably related to what we might call heaven, the final state of bliss for the righteous.

So I don’t think that Jesus means “Sheol” or “Hades” when he tells the thief on the cross that he will be joining him in Paradise. The other two times it’s used in the New Testament, it means. heaven, whatever heaven is. But whatever heaven is, it isn’t some kind of holding tank for the dead like, whether ambiguous as the Jewish Sheol, or little more concrete in conception, as Hades. Paradise is Heaven. Dante was right!

But Jesus, according to Peter, didn’t immediately go to Paradise, after death. The Apostle’s Creed confesses a very literal interpretation of Peter’s first letter-that Jesus went to hell, whatever that is. Jesus died and descended to the underworld to rescue the souls of those who had died, and after this, Jesus himself rose from the dead.

But Paradise isn’t Hades. And Jesus says, “Today, you will be with me in heaven” to the thief. But according to Peter, Jesus went to Hades that very day.

Maybe Luke and Peter just have different information. If so, who’s right? (Is that the question?)

Or

Jesus and the thief share something incredibly intimate, if common. They’re both dying on the same day, in the same way, as enemies of the State. But the thief recognizes an important truth. Jesus is innocent.

How devastating! The wicked and the righteous suffer the same fate. Even for the wicked that reality is an existential and moral crisis.

If life is a vapor, what is today? If mankind is only a mere breath, what is an age? If Christ’s kingdom, paradise, is everlasting, when and where does it begin? Timelessness is, well, timeless. For Jesus, the clock that marked the beginning of his kingdom struck first at the cross, then his de-scension into hell, then his resurrection, and then his a-scension. And now we wait for his return at the end of time. But since he died, resurrected, and ascended to the right hand of God the Father, Paradise as of…today… is the thief’s, is ours, especially those who are not offended by his cross, who don’t think it too strange, or too unseemly to request eternal life of a bloodied, beaten, emasculated and humiliated working class enemy of the Temple and the State.

But what exactly is the thief’s confession? Well, in the spirit of Lent, there is an admission of guilt. (But where is the repentance?) There is a plea for remembrance. But what does that mean? It doesn’t necessarily imply a confession of faith. It’s the ole man with a gun to his head parable. What doctrine does it confess? What do the thief’s words tell us about what he believes about Jesus?

Are we sure he believes Jesus is the Messiah? Are we sure he believes that Jesus can save his soul? We can be sure that the thief believes that Jesus is innocent. He indicates a belief in Jesus’ possession of a kingdom. But, what kind of kingdom does the thief presume Jesus reigns over? The kind of kingdom that welcomes the guilty, and lets the innocent die? But does the thief even expect welcome? Or is he just asking to be remembered? As if the righteous eat and drink in Jesus’ kingdom and mention the thief’s name, so that in this way, at least he is kept alive in memory?

Confession is what it is. It’s an outward, always an outward, expression. And thus, it can always be disingenuous. In order for it to work, faith must accompany it. What happens in the inner man, only the Spirit of God has privy.

And if Jesus has the Spirit of God in him, then he is able to hear confession from the heart and not from the mouth only. One might say that he heard from the thief’s heart a faith worth rewarding with Paradise.

But if words are windows into the heart, however foggy, what can we, without the help of the Spirit, glean from sheer observation of the thief’s words to Jesus?

That he’s human. That he’s dying. And though we may not know what that’s like, we know it makes him vulnerable. He is dying, (as are we all) and the fact is as horrifyingly real to him as it ever will be, and in that state, he cries out to a fellow, although unlike him, not a criminal, that he doesn’t want to be forgotten. He is reaching out to a stranger for a gift. He may really believe that Jesus can grant such a thing. But there is nothing at stake for his being wrong about that. However, Paul says that without faith it is impossible to please God, and that the one who has faith must believe that God rewards those who seek him. From this we may surmise that the thief believed that Jesus could reward him, because Jesus said he was going to be rewarded. And we confess our belief that Jesus knew his heart.

But what about those who don’t quite believe; who hope, but are also desperate enough to beg? The beggar on the street doesn’t need to believe in my generosity to receive it. And there is no material risk in asking. He can only benefit. Only two things could prevent him from receiving my cash-my refusal, or his pride. What does the thief on the cross have to lose in asking this man who claimed to be Messiah to save his soul, except the pride which dies with him anyway? But can such calculated “faith” be rewarded? Would it even be faith?

I think it’s axiomatic to say that one cannot believe what one does not believe. The text, like every text, like all interactions, does not give us irrefutable insight into the heart. We are always taking everyone at their word. We live by faith alone.

Regardless, we can safely project our own human desires on our fellow human as we imagine the horror and finality of his situation. We recognize a strong will to live, even if only in memory. We recognize the insatiable desire that his life have meaning, even if his head be full of doubt, (it doesn’t seem so) even if he’s tempted to knock on wood as he declares it. He still, for life’s sake, makes the attempt, however far-fetched, mystical, or impossible, at some form of eternal life, particularly, remarkably, in the crucified man named Jesus.

If he doesn’t fully believe that Jesus is able to remember him in his kingdom; if he doesn’t fully believe that Jesus really has a kingdom. We take him at his word that he truly believes Jesus to be innocent, and having the authority to grant entrance to heaven. But how could he believe that a crucified man, a victim, a convicted criminal, should have that authority?

Jesus must be fully baptized, fully immersed, in the actual human experience. The victim is a mirror. And from this truth arises a claim too mystical for moderns. For there have been many martyrs. None of them can lay sole claim to the universe. Luke’s claim is more than-Jesus is innocent of charges worthy of crucifixion. Luke’s subtle claim is that Jesus is innocent of any charge worthy of death, under any law, including God’s and still, Jesus chose to die, and (scandal!) God appointed him to die. Jesus died Knowing that he was purchasing paradise for thieves and murderers and the whole lot of us standing around with the blood of Abel, Zechariah, and on all the righteous on our hands. But was he purchasing and handing out the rights to Paradise on the authority of his innocence? How is innocence authority? And how was he innocent?? Did he not pay the temple tax? How could the spotless lamb not himself be stained by the blood that flowed down every street he ever walked? Born of the Virgin, Christ was not born in sin, but he was a connected part of a world that was. Is his authority nothing but an arbitrary question put to faith? So he is God, and that is that? Or should we just end the charade and admit we don’t even believe John the Baptist was sent by God.

Why do we insist on codifying, and etching in Sinaic stones, the definitive answers to intentionally impossible questions, questions which bear the infinite quality of divinity?

If you cannot tell, I resist the bottom. But this, whatever this is, a post I suppose, will have to conclude.

The point. Whatever kingdoms and utopias swirl and shine in our hearts and minds, whatever hopes sustain us through the minutes, days, and years, we still walk death row as thieves on crosses. And the King of Creation, the I AM, declares by his own death, that entrance into His kingdom, the only lasting kingdom, cannot skip past death. We don’t just pass away. We pass through. And we all know that death is just one moment out of an unknown number of moments. Do we believe that from the moment of our birth we would never cease to experience moments? Death is either a passing or annihilation. Whether you believe that life is eternal is up to you. Either way, the end (of life as we know it) is nigh. We live by faith alone.

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Matt Miller

Dad, Husband, and Pastor into reading, writing, and talking about anything, including the lost art of conversation, but also sports and coffee.