Summary: Contrast the thieves on the crosses; from Jesus they had, or could have had, salvation, assurance, companionship, things which no thief can steal.
The scene was one of striking and even bitter contrast. While three men were being hauled off to their deaths, one of them was far different from the other two.
Two of these hapless three were thieves, and as thieves they had lived by the law of the thief: namely, easy come, easy go. If you take it, you can lose it. If you steal it, someone else is very likely to steal it from you. And if you put someone else’s life on the line in order to take his money or his goods, well, then, the state will put your life on the line if and when you are caught. Thieves live and die by the law of thieves. Two of these men were thieves, living and dying about as you might have expected, pilloried for their crimes, wild and high against an eastern sky.
But the other was no thief. He had no reason to be a thief, he had no reason to steal, because the cattle on a thousand hills were his. Because all things were His; He had made all things, and without Him was not anything made that was made. This other man was no thief and indeed would have had no reason at all to steal anything.
A scene of striking and even bitter contrasts. And a scene in which the two thieves, who knew all too well the law of theft, encountered something no thief can steal. I want to suggest to you this morning that at that scene, two bandits, whose whole lives had been giving to stealing, encountered and were offered three things which no thief can steal. They were offered salvation; they were offered assurance; and they were offered companionship. All of them things which, once you have them, no thief can steal.
First, the two thieves encountered in that victim on that center cross the issue of salvation. One of them, the cursing thief, chose to believe that it was too little, too late, for him to receive salvation. But the other thief, the believing thief, chose to hope that even while he suffered on his cross there was a fountain of salvation, something that no thief could steal from him.
The cursing thief snarled, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" And in his desperation, his bitterness, he heaped upon Christ all the self-hatred he had been carrying around. He just refused to believe that anything good could happen to him. The cursing thief, with one last chance to save a shred of dignity, one last opportunity to be affirmed by somebody … the cursing thief is every one of us who thinks we are hopeless. The cursing thief is every one of us who thinks we’ve made too much a mess of it. The cursing thief, crying out, but not believing it, "save yourself and us", is every man and woman in this world who has lived so long by the law of the thief, who has taken and cheated and acted out of low self-esteem so long that he sees no hope except to get worse and worse and just go on and die.
A couple of weeks ago, Sixty Minutes broadcast the story of a prisoner in Texas who is petitioning the state to execute him. He acknowledges that he committed murder and rape, and has concluded that he is in fact so miserable, so hopeless, that he ought to die. He is trying to get a judge to sentence him to a lethal injection. As I saw that story and listened to an otherwise very intelligent, soft-spoken, literate man, I heard the accumulation of years and years of self-hatred. He had hated himself so much that he had worked out violence on others. He had scorned himself so much that he had stolen the purity of young women. And now all he really knows is to hate himself into the grave.
The cursing thief hated himself so much that he would even throw away the last hope of salvation.
But the believing thief … the believing thief … whose crimes equaled the other’s, whose life was no different, whose guilt was just as heavy … the believing thief saw something else. The believing thief saw something which no thief could steal, which no self-hatred could snatch away. The believing thief saw that, wonder of wonders, the penalty he should be paying was paid by Jesus. The condemnation that should have been his was being heaped on the innocent one. The believing thief saw that both he and the other thief had been condemned correctly, for, he said, "we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
The believing thief, just as guilty as the other, just as deserving of death, reached through all his years of wrong and of self-loathing and of guilt, and found that the bill for his crimes was paid. The believing thief at the cross of Jesus found that though he had accumulated a record just as horrible, just as vile as the other thief, now Jesus paid it all. The believing thief discovered that it is never too late, that no one is ever too far gone, that no one is ever so corrupted to be beyond the reach of the Cross.