Oxford Presbyterian Church
Joint Good Friday Service
March 25, 2016
Luke 23: 39-43
Several years ago a parishioner asked me to play a song by Kris Kristofferson at her funeral, called “Why me Lord?” Why me Lord, it begins, What have I ever done to deserve even one of the blessings I’ve known. Why me Lord?, it continues, What did I ever do? That was worth love from You and the kindness You’ve shown.” I listened to the song for the first time after her death, and was startled at the word “blessing” — which, of course, is what the songwriter intended, knowing that most of us only ask, Why me Lord? when we’re facing loss, or misfortune, or suffering. We ask “what did I do?” and either search our past for the crime which explains it, or - understandably - feel angry at God. For we like to believe that if we’re going to church and keeping away from drugs and doing our best to treat people well, we deserve a good life. A good job, a good marriage, well-behaved children (hah!), a nice home. The cosmetic firm L’Oreal knew this, when they sold hair coloring with the tagline “you’re worth it,” a variation on the them of “you deserve it.”
Of course, we can also go in the other direction, feeling we don’t deserve any blessings. Especially if we’ve been abused as children, or never knew the love of a parent, it can be hard to shake the belief that we’re undeserving of love, forgiveness, or success. If we’ve committed a grave wrong, we may feel that we should be paying for it the rest of our lives. And if we stop expecting anything good we often do things to fulfill that expectation, in a downward spiral of poor choices. Most of us, I think, are a confused mixture: sometimes feeling we deserve the good and sometimes the bad, ricocheting between shame and entitlement, two sides of the same coin, and underneath it all a desire for control. We want to feel the good or bad is up to us. So we ask, “Why me Lord?” when things don’t go the way we think they should.
But not everyone. Not the Penitent thief, as the second criminal is often called. He didn’t ask, “Why me Lord?” The Lord was right next to him — it was a good opportunity — but the criminal already knew, or thought he knew why. His deeds put him on the cross : he tells the other criminal their punishment is just, that they deserve what they’re getting. So he doesn’t ask Jesus why me: instead, he rebukes his fellow criminal. He then asks Jesus to remember him. Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
And so, through the centuries, people have held up the “penitent thief” as a model: even the worst of sinners, this interpretation goes, will receive mercy if they turn to Christ and ask forgiveness. Now, that’s true: even the worst of sinners will receive mercy if they turn to Christ and ask forgiveness. But I’d like to stop the action here just for a minute. These three men are being tortured. Crucifixion was cruel and unusual punishment by anyone’s definition. The pain was excruciating. It went on for hours, often days. It was public. Men were hung naked — the pictures are wrong — and death could come in any number of horrible ways. The crucified didn’t have calm conversations. If anything, they screamed. Their bodies were usually left on the cross, denied a proper burial, something very important to people in the ancient world. Now some of them may have committed heinous crimes. But we know from the trial of Jesus that the Roman justice system hardly ensured “due process”: and those who were guilty may have been guilty of a crime like escaping slavery and stealing bread. Or they might have been guilty of leading a rebellion, killing Roman soldiers, a crime that would have made them heroes if they had been on the Roman side. Tens of thousands were crucified by the Romans — and the Romans weren’t the only people to use this punishment. It doesn’t matter what they did: no one, no one, no one, deserves to be crucified. It breaks my heart to hear the criminal talk about himself that way.
So when Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” I don’t think he’s simply assuring the penitent thief — or us - that we will be saved if we turn to Jesus, although we will be. Jesus is telling the crucified man that his pain, and his death, is not the last thing that he will know. For he’s not getting what he deserved. Torture is not the will of God. Jesus assures us, from the cross, that God’s will is stronger than Rome. God’s will is to welcome people to paradise because God’s love is greater than anything we may do. Including taunting Jesus when we are in excruciating pain. Because we don’t get what we deserve, at least in this life. Yes, our actions have consequences, good and bad, and we need to take responsibility for that. And yes, for protection and order we need a criminal justice system. And yes, everyone “deserves,” if we use that word, food to eat, a safe home, freedom. And yes, I do believe we’ll be judged by the one who is both merciful and just. But we are neither blessed nor cursed according to our “deserving”; we are simply loved. Loved by one who, in solidarity with us, did not get what he deserved. Loved by one, who, in his teaching and healing sought to bring wholeness and peace to all peoples —and call us to do the same. Loved by one, who, today and forever, will be with us in paradise — the paradise we glimpse here on earth, the paradise we will know when we see Christ face to face. The paradise all peoples will know when Jerusalem descends from the heavens, and the tree of life is planted by the living stream, with leaves for the healing of the nations. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”