The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ The King, Year C  

Our Gospel proclamation from Luke challenges us to expand our notions of who deserves mercy.  The passage is structured around three instances of mockery leveled against Jesus.  Stating only that Jesus was crucified alongside two criminals, Luke’s narration does not dwell on the particularities of crucifixion.  Luke’s audience would have been well aware of its horrific details.  The sneering and mockeries communicate how dismal things have become for Jesus.  The Jewish leaders are close enough for him to hear them; the soldiers, who had already taken his garments, come up to him and mock him; and the final act of derision comes from someone right beside Jesus.

Each of the taunts challenge Jesus to save himself as a demonstration of his identity.  In their calls for Jesus to demonstrate his power to save, the leaders, the soldiers, and the criminal, address him with titles that, from their perspective, add to the ridicule but actually represent valid affirmations of Jesus’ identity: “The Christ”; “chosen one,”; “King of the Jews,”.  They ironically pronounce Christian truths about Jesus without realizing it.  The salvation Jesus offers takes place through the cross, not apart from it.

The taunting Jesus receives from the criminal offends the other criminal crucified with Jesus.  This second criminal accepts that they are “condemned justly” and deserve their punishment, whereas Jesus “has done nothing wrong”.  How he knows that Jesus is innocent is not indicated, nor is it stated what the criminals had done.

Instead, Luke focuses on how these criminals position themselves before Jesus while in their guilty state. The first criminal joins the others in spurning Jesus and demands that Jesus save them all from being crucified.  The second criminal also asks something of Jesus, but his earnest request contrasts the first criminal’s selfish, impertinent demand.  While others in this account use titles to mock Jesus, showing they do not really believe Jesus to be Messiah and King, this second criminal accepts in utter sincerity the inscription’s identification of Jesus as “King” asking that he be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom.  He speaks to Jesus in a startlingly personal and intimate fashion, addressing Jesus directly by name and not with a sarcastic use of a title.  Notice that he didn’t even ask for a spot in heaven.  He simply asked Jesus to remember him in heaven.  He asked for a crumb. Jesus gave him the whole loaf!

In response, Jesus’ words begin with “Amen” which introduces his “today” pronouncement with a solemn assertiveness.  The word “today”, appears at key points in Luke’s Gospel to describe the arrival of Jesus’ salvation in the world.  This is its last occurrence, at the cross from which Jesus’ salvation becomes a reality to this criminal and a possibility to any of “the lost”.   Jesus finds this criminal worthy of being in God’s presence with all the righteous, despite the fact that by the Roman state and by his own admission he had been “justly” considered worthy of condemnation.  

Jesus’ response to the “good thief” is perhaps the most beautiful promise in Scripture.  However, it raises an intriguing question.  How is it possible that Jesus promised him: “today you will be with me in Paradise” but he didn’t rise until the third day and didn’t ascend to heaven until after forty days?  If we take Paradise as a location, we are facing a logical problem.  But Paradise is primarily total communion with our living and loving Father, as it was meant from the beginning of creation.  In this sense, Jesus entered Paradise at the moment he prayed: “‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’  When he had said this, he breathed his last”.

The exchange at the crucifixion reveals the wide scope of Jesus’ offer of salvation.  Even those carrying out the crucifixion can be forgiven.  And though Jesus responds to the second criminal’s request, he ignores the calls to save himself, because it is through the cross that he comes into his kingdom, where those deemed unrighteous by the world may share in the salvation of the righteous.  His reign is not a death-dealing system intent on punishment, but a “paradise” that “today” extends even to those whom we do not think deserve it.  Christ, the King extends mercy in a boundlessly gracious fashion that far exceeds what is asked of him.  As  Saint Ambrose put it, “More abundant is the favor shown than the request made.”

Three criminals were crucified on Golgotha that day.  Two were guilty.  One was innocent.  Jesus wasn’t punished for his crimes.  He was punished for ours.  We probably aren’t guilty of the crimes that the criminals hanging next to Jesus were guilty of according to Roman rule but are we guilty of crimes according to God’s rule?

Before the sun set that day, the “good thief” on the cross would be with Jesus in paradise.  His time of grace wouldn’t allow him much time or opportunity to share the Good News with others, but ours does.  What will we do with it?

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