King of the Jews
One of my favorite games growing up was King of the Hill.
For boys this is a great game! Tons of pushing and shoving. The goal is simple maintain control of your hill, the bed, the couch, a snow bank, wherever there is a hill to conquer. It is not a game for the weak. It gets very physical. Generally the strongest most powerful player becomes the King of Hill.
During Advent we talked about the visitation of the angel Gabriel to a young lady named Mary.
Luke 1: 30 Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."
It seems to me that Jesus should be considered the hero. Jesus is going to be the King of Israel. We know that Jesus is the Son of God, and Jesus was given ultimate power. So powerful was Jesus that he could miraculously heal people from all kinds of diseases, ailments and sicknesses. Jesus was so powerful that he could raise people from the dead. This was the hero who can kick anyone's ass.
That is the Jesus we expect to hear about. But instead of watching Jesus rid the world of evil we have Jesus, the powerful king, the son of God, hanging from a cross.
Read Luke 23:32-43
Three times we hear "Save yourself." These were not words of encouragement. These are words that mocked Jesus. The mocking was coming from individuals that did not believe that Jesus was a powerful king or the Son of God. They did look at Jesus as their hero.
It started with the religious leaders, these were the guys who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else (Luke 18:9). They should have known who Jesus was, they had the knowledge, they had the Book, they knew the prophecies. But they rejected knowledge, they rejected the signs, they rejected Jesus. And these religious leaders even plotted the death of Jesus.
He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.
Next the soldiers started approach the cross, they continue the mocking. These are professional executioners. They knew how to whip and torture someone just enough to hang them upon a cross where the criminal would ultimately meet their death. The vinegar they offered Jesus was thought to be a numbing agent, able to keep the criminal alive a bit longer.
If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.
Finally one of the two criminals hanging on the cross next to Jesus screams insults at Jesus. This man continues the mocking. There is no faith. There is no love. Just a man facing death and the emptiness of what lays ahead.
Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and save us!
So if this was our first time reading through the passage we would expect that the all powerful Son of God would say, "Ok, cut the crap! I am here to enforce God's will. You measly little people really have no authority over me; you have no ability really to put me to death. I can and I will show you who is the boss..."
What kind of king is this anyhow? What kind of hero is this who does not use his power, who does not use his divine connections, to get himself off the cross?
But instead of saving himself, he offers forgiveness. Father forgive them. But who is Jesus forgiving?
Is it for the two thieves, one on his right and one on his left? Is he asking forgiveness for the Jewish leaders who have asked for his crucifixion? How about for the Roman soldiers who have carried out the death sentence? What about for the crowd who surround him but do not know what to say about the events that have transpired?
Or is it for us…
As the end draws near, the other criminal turns to Jesus, and somehow recognizes who Jesus is and makes the deepest human plea: Remember me!
In the first century a common inscription on gravestones was "remember me." It was a kind of little prayer to the gods that they might remember the person in the grave. If the gods choose to remember the dead then they may well survive the grave.
From the criminal offering up that plea we do not hear mocking. There are no insults. Just an honest, sincere cry for help. And through the cry you sense faith. The Jewish leaders did not recognize the Messiah. The soldiers didn't know of the true King. The other criminal only saw a fellow criminal. But this common criminal recognized Jesus as an innocent man. He recognizes Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah.
And you can hear his cry because it is our cry, remember me!
Forgiveness has been offered and only one accepts the offer. One confesses the things he has done. One repents. His cry is his prayer of salvation
And Jesus responds with his second words from the cross, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
When we hear the word paradise we have visions of mountain streams or the beach at sunset or a garden. Others hear the word paradise and think heaven. Heaven is where you go somewhere in the sky as spirits without body.
The word paradise is Persian in origin and refers to a walled garden or park. By the time of Jesus, paradise was a special place in Sheol for the "righteous dead." Hades was the place of torment for the unrighteous in Sheol. In Sheol the righteous were separated from the unrighteous.
And Jesus spoke of this separation in one of his parables:
The parable of Lazarus and The Rich Man
The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man speak of our responsibility to bring heaven to earth. We are not poor, we are not weak, we are not persecuted. But are we stepping over and walking around the Lazarus' in our lives?
The story speaks of a present age, not just a distant future. It also speaks that signs and wonders will not save people. Even those that witnessed the miracles of Jesus were quick to look for ways to silence him. Even those that knew the message, rejected Him.
Paradise, or Heaven is the kingdom of God lived out here on earth. When that happens there will be a great reversal, the so called "righteous" are set aside, and the "poor" are blessed.
To me paradise suggests a very physical state of existence [A PLACE!]
Later in the story of Jesus' crucifixion God raises Jesus, our hero, from the dead, and the first thing the risen Jesus does is to join a couple of his friends on the road. Beginning with Moses and the prophets, he interprets to his friends things about himself and about a God who wants an end to idolatry and a reunion with humankind enough to give up—and raise up—his Son to make it happen. Jesus opens the scriptures to the guys walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and then he blesses and breaks bread with them (Luke 24:13-35). It is something between a sumptuous feast and a plate of leftovers for the beggar.
Here is a stranger, recognized to be Jesus of Nazareth, risen from the dead and creating around himself a community that together reads, walks, blesses, eats, and proclaims the news, "We have seen the Lord."
It is our hope that we are not the ones mocking or shouting insults at Jesus as he hangs from the cross…Save Yourself!
But instead we hear his offer of forgiveness, "Father Forgive Them" and we cry out, "Remember me!"
Paradise is not a place we hope to one day arrive at, but rather Jesus invites us to bring paradise to our world.