He recited the same familiar excuses, over and over, hundreds of times in his head. The economy had viciously swung downward. He was always one step behind in knowing when to sell and when to buy. He had several business opportunities that never panned out. He worked hard, but his jobs never paid enough or compensated him adequately for his skills, so he moved on. And his family was too demanding, always wanting more and expanding in number. It wasn’t his fault. He labored like a dog, yet ended each day no further ahead than when he started. And his bosses, the people who owned things and knew people, grew richer and richer. At his expense.
He could justify it so neatly, rationally. The first time he did it, he had remorse. But he was quickly able to talk himself out of the guilt. His family needed to eat. If he was paid a fair wage, he wouldn’t need to steal. The little things he pilfered should really have been his in the first place. He was just robbing the crooks. And it got easier. He became adept with sleight of hand and the quick movements necessary to take what he wanted with no one the wiser.
But things changed. He got a little too self-assured and sloppy. People began to catch on, and before he could escape their attention, he was caught and thrown into jail. The charges mounted, and he found himself again on the wrong side of a raw deal. Then came the judgment: crucifixion. The words took his breath away, forcing him to take a long, serious look at his life. He pushed the excuses aside and made a careful evaluation of himself, as can only be done when facing the reality of death.
It was like a veil lifted, and what he saw turned his stomach. He had wasted his life. He was so busy being angry, accusing others, looking for trouble and the easy deal, that he had missed out on the important things. He now realized he wouldn’t be able to provide for his children, or grow old with his wife, or witness any of the hundreds of simple things that make everyday life rich. He was filled with remorse. He knew he was guilty of the crimes heaped on him, and he could see no way out. His punishment was here, laid across his shoulders in the crushing weight of a hard, unforgiving cross.
He stumbled along with a small group of prisoners, each walking closer to their shared fate: a slow and excruciating execution. As they approached their destination, he noticed, despite the pain and agony, another man. This man was severely beaten, barely resembling human form. He appeared to cause a stir in the crowd; some wept, and others insulted and shouted curses. He heard the man’s name, Jesus of Nazareth, and was startled. He recognized the name. He heard of his amazing miracles, healings, compassion for the poor, and no-nonsense attitude with the rich and educated. He was a man of God. It was even rumored that he was the Messiah, the long awaited king for the Jews. How could this man be walking with him, a common thief, toward his death?
The time came. He was thrown onto his cross, and the nails pounded into place. The cross was raised, and he was in agony, every breath a struggle. In the midst of this, he noticed Jesus beside him. The crowd continued to jeer and verbally accost Jesus. The thief was incensed. This man was innocent! He didn’t deserve this! But instead of defending himself, Jesus, simply responded, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Yet they continued their jests, and smug jokes, looking warm and comfortable standing on the ground, shouting their taunts. The thief was disgusted and then surprised when the prisoner on Jesus’ other side joined in, sarcastically asking, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us” (v. 39)! The irony a sick, final amusement.
The thief could stand no more. He “rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong’” (vv. 40-41). He turned his head and looked at Jesus. That one glance mesmerized him. He saw something he had forgotten long ago. Compassion. Mercy. Love. Forgiveness. He saw a true king. He found the strength to speak one last time. “Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise’” (vv. 42-43).
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:15-17).
From the series: Ordinary Encounters with Extraordinary Jesus.