Let’s begin with Jesus and the thief as they hang on crosses next to each other. While each Gospel mentions Jesus hanging between two other men, only Luke 23: 39-43 provides a “Cliff Note” version of the conversation between them. Maybe they spoke a good deal more.
I know how this exchange is usually interpreted. But I suggest there is more to consider: One thief, desperate for Jesus to magically save them all, played his fearful role well; but it appears the other thief showed a depth of human compassion for Jesus that touched Jesus’ own humanness.
Traditional interpretations aside, I suggest their common human suffering and human hope bonded Jesus and the second thief in ways we may often just miss. Further, I suggest Jesus’ promise to see the man “in Paradise” had much more to do with his embracing the man’s humanity than because the man had a “foxhole conversion.”
As I read and reflect on God’s grand plan through Jesus, I see God’s intent was to move people away from the roles they play and toward their genuine inner selves. Maybe even the real resurrection that awaits us has to do with our discovering that we are so much more than the roles we play and the fears we hide or express.
Jesus saw the thief’s human compassion on that cross. That brief glimpse of the man’s care for someone other than himself gave Jesus the confidence to know the man was being healed. “Healed” is the best synonym for “saved” I can think of.
Given their short life-expectancy, Jesus could have used a word like “paradise” to assure the man of his healing. While some may think they know exactly what Jesus meant, none of us really know.
But other unreported words were likely shared as well. I want to imagine they shared their common humanity with each other in a way that raised both of them up, emotionally and spiritually. Jesus shared his full humanness like that with people he met in his ministry. Certainly, he continued to share his humanness on the cross.
Part of what I’m suggesting is that we don’t need to wait for our physical deaths to experience some kind of resurrection. Jesus’ talk of “the kingdom of God is within you” all through the Gospels is a good sign he wanted people to experience New Life (resurrection) here and now. Actually, Jesus’ view of God’s kingdom was not really about heaven. It is for the earth – and now! Check out the Lord’s Prayer if you are skeptical. In “Excavating Jesus,” John Dominic Crossan quipped about this: “The Kingdom of God is about God’s will for this earth. Heaven is in great shape; it’s the earth that is problematic.”
Even on the cross, Jesus proclaimed the presence of God’s kingdom in the hearts of those who are willing to see it. To see the kingdom “at hand” is to be bold enough to realize we too often settle for an sadly incomplete perception of our own humanity.
When we see ourselves only as sinners in need of rescue, we demean God’s creation of Jesus – and ourselves. When we embrace God’s promise that our humanness is much more than we believe it is, our resurrection has begun.
The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, is the founder of Elder Advocates. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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