Summary: Jesus' words to the criminal on the cross reveal to us the redeeming work of Christ on a cross in order that we might enter God's presence (paradise). And the fact that the first person Jesus invites into paradise is a hardened criminal reminds us that Je
Today, we observe Palm Sunday. On this day, we remember Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem. You all remember the story, right? Jesus has spent three years traveling around the Galilean countryside, preaching to the people, teaching them, eating and drinking with them, and healing them. Then, in the third year, he made his way to Jerusalem, along with his disciples and other Jewish pilgrims to celebrate the Passover Feast. By now, Jesus has developed quite a widespread reputation. He is both famous, and infamous. So when he arrives at the city gate, the Jewish pilgrims gathered there are elated to see him, and they welcome him to Jerusalem much like they would welcome a conquering king, returning from battle. This is the man who has healed their friends and family; the man who has raised people from the dead. He is a hero. And yet, by the end of the week, this same crowd has turned on Jesus. The great admiration has turned into great condemnation. And in this little vignette from the cross that we heard just a few moments ago, we get a glimpse of why.
It is said that a person is known by the company he keeps. In life and in death, Jesus associated with sinners. Even as he hangs here on the cross, he offers words of hope and freedom to a convicted criminal. And Luke wants to make sure that we know of this conversation between Jesus and the criminal because for Luke it was important to highlight Jesus’ concern for the least, the last, and the lost. Yet, it was this particular behavior of Jesus that really irked the religious people. The leaders of the day had worked hard to get where they were in the religious establishment, and they didn’t like this idea that just anybody could belong to God.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus was surrounded by Pharisees and scribes who were constantly grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus even allowed a prostitute to wash his feet with her tears. He called tax collectors and down-right sinners to be his disciples. He touched lepers and ate with unclean people. And to share a meal with someone in Jesus’ day was a sign of deep and abiding friendship. Jesus was saying, “These people are my friends!” We see this kind of association throughout his ministry. And the people responded.
In Jesus’ day, nonreligious people generally did not like associating with religious people. They likely felt they had to watch their language and pretend to be something they weren’t because they didn’t want to feel the judgment and scorn of the religious people. It’s still that way today, isn’t it? Many non-religious, or nominally religious people might consider going to church, until they think about what it feels like when that walk into the church—and it doesn’t feel good. The preacher seems to talk down to people like them, they don’t know the words to the songs or prayers; all of it makes them feel small. But when Jesus was around non-religious people, they didn’t feel small. That’s because these were the people Jesus loved the most, these were the people Jesus came to serve. Earlier in Luke’s gospel, Jesus told the religious leaders, “The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” And even as Jesus died, he was carrying out this mission statement and associating with sinners.
So we come to this moment at Golgotha; three men hanging on crosses, suffering and dying together. This scene of Jesus and the two criminals is among the most powerful in all of Scripture. Jesus, the only fully righteous and sinless human being, had his final conversation with a criminal and thug who was rethinking life in response to Jesus’ character and mercy. And Jesus offered the man eternal life. He said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Do you see how important reaching lost people was—and is—to Jesus? It was what drove him to the cross, it was what caused the Palm Sunday crowds to turn on him. So that in his dying he might save the human race from self-destruction, self-worship, and sin; and so that in his resurrection he might save us from death.
So what does that mean for us? I think it all comes down to this question: Do people who do not know Jesus feel comfortable around you? Because, you see, even this hardened criminal hanging next to Jesus sensed in him something so approachable that he was bold enough to ask Jesus to “remember him in the kingdom.” Do people feel so comfortable around you, do they feel valued and accepted, or do they feel small? Are you willing to associate with people who might be considered riff-raff, and would you show them kindness and compassion? Because that’s what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Just think about what would happen if every one of us who professes to be a Christian reached out to those who are lost and showed them love and compassion in Jesus’ name! How the world would change! It would be like Paradise!!!