“Indeed, I promise you,” he replied, “today you will be with me in paradise.”
Each of the gospel writers tell the story of Jesus’ dying words very differently. We should understand that each is trying to convey “good news” (that’s what gospel means) in a way that the writer’s community can receive. Luke’s gospel addresses an early Christian community made up largely of gentiles–non-Jews. Christianity was a Jewish mystery movement, and all of its first followers were Jewish and considered themselves Jewish. When gentiles began joining the Christian movement, there was a backlash–how could gentiles possibly be included? In those tensions, this community that Luke writes for questioned its own legitimacy within The Big Divine Scheme. The stories of and about Jesus in Luke’s gospel emphasize the underdogs, the “lessers” of the human community: women, children, the sick, gentiles, foreigners, refugees, and it does so to the very end.
The dying Jesus as portrayed in the quotation above, is addressed by two thieves crucified along with him. One cajoles Jesus: “use your power and get us out of here.” The other corrects: “we deserve this punishment. This man does not. Jesus, when you come into your kingdom, remember me.”
What do we need saving from? What hinders us most in becoming fully human? The first man needed saving from his arrogance, his ploy to manipulate people and power even while he was dying. The second man needed saving from exclusion and separation.
Jesus didn’t respond to the first man, at least not directly. When we respond to those who are manipulative and power hungry, we often play right into their hands. Silence is this man’s salvation. His manipulations have come to a silence where he may truly begin to see himself. Jesus’ response to the second man offers a beautiful image of inclusion: paradise. The word “paradise” has roots in Greek, Persian and Latin, and they all mean a park or an enclosed garden. In a Jewish context, it was often used to refer to the First Garden, the Garden of Creation, the Garden of Eden–where separation and exclusion first took place.
What do we need saving from? What hinders us most in becoming fully human? If we imagine ourselves in conversation with Jesus (or Buddha or Ralph Waldo Emerson or Martin Luther King, Jr., or James Reeb or Viola Liuzzo), what would they offer us as a way of salvation from the thing that hinders our full humanity? Let’s be clear. This utterance of Jesus was not just about a life after death. It was about a restoration to human and spiritual dignity. What stands in our way, today?