A Dying Breath
Originally written November 5th, 2012 —
I don’t know why this has been on my mind so much these past few weeks (maybe it’s because of the recent Bible study series we just finished at church), but I’ve been thinking a lot about the offense of forgiveness. We usually like the think of forgiveness as something that needs to be earned; if I mess up, I need to be begging for forgiveness, and doing everything I can to be making up for whatever mistakes I’ve made if I ever want to be forgiven. And certainly, a truly repentant heart will be doing just that in response to mistakes…but on the other hand; forgiveness is something much greater than that.
I keep thinking back to Jesus’ death in the book of Luke. Luke offers an interesting perspective that the others gospel accounts don’t; a look into what the criminals being executed next to Jesus were saying. In all the other accounts, the only things mentioned about the criminals were that they were insulting Jesus, and that they were thieves. Interestingly, theft by itself wasn’t a capital crime in Rome, so whatever these men had been involved in probably involved some very serious crimes. Possibly they had even been associated with Barabbas, and were expecting to be crucified along with him rather than Jesus. I think a lot about that scene on the cross; particularly the insults of these two criminals. Honestly, this is kind of a weird time to be insulting someone. Crucifixion was a slow death by suffocation; not the kind of time you’d be painfully wasting your breath insulting another dying man.
This isn’t written anywhere in the Bible, but sometimes I like to think that the first reaction these two criminals had when they saw Jesus there between them was one of renewed hope. Jesus had been pretty well known as a miracle worker by this time, and there were certainly plenty of rumors going around of him being the Messiah. Certainly, the Messiah wouldn’t let himself be crucified, right? This would be his moment to come down, display his amazing miraculous powers, and destroy the nation of Rome once and for all, right? I like to imagine that the first thought going through each of their heads was, “Today is my lucky day! Here I was expecting to be executed with Barabbas, but now I’ve got Jesus right next to me! Any moment now, he’s going to call an army of angels, come down off of that cross, and save all of us from Rome! We’re getting crucified on the perfect day!” Eagerly, they call out to him, “You’re going to save us, right? This is your moment, right? Don’t forget to take us down too! We’re with you all the way!” As seconds turn into minutes, and they hear the crowds around them calling on Jesus to demonstrate his miraculous powers, surely they were joining in too. “Come on, Jesus! You’ve healed every disease we’ve ever heard of! You’ve raised people back from the dead! Right…?” Renewed hope starts to slowly give way to fear, and they start to question him, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself, and us too!” As the minutes drag on, and start turning into hours, that fear starts turning into frustration. “You’re a fraud, aren’t you? If you were really the Christ, you’d have done something by now!” Silence is the only thing they hear now from the man they had been putting their hopes in for salvation from this torture.
It’s tough to say whether both criminals had been insulting him or it was only one the whole time. It’s interesting to imagine that it had been both, though. Imagine as the hours drag on, one of the criminals, as he shouts out, has an epiphany as Jesus silently endures each insult. Here between them was a man who had done nothing wrong. There was no crime Jesus had committed, there was never any real charge filed against him. He spent his entire life of ministry healing people and giving them hope, and here he was being killed alongside two men so vile they had been sentenced to the most painful method of execution Rome had to offer. As the other criminal continues his frustrated venting from one side of Jesus, his conscience forces him to speak out from the other side. “Don’t you fear God…since you are under the same sentence?” With great pain, he gasps for breath to speak out another sentence to his mistaken accomplice, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.” Again, another gasp, and another breath, “But…this man has done nothing wrong…”
The next sentence he gasps out is perhaps the most offensive request in the entire Bible.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom…”
Here Jesus is, being insulted and humiliated by everyone on every side of him. His closest friends had all deserted him. He had been badly beaten, whipped, and was hanging naked on a giant stick while soldiers were choosing how to divide up his clothes among each other (I know we like to think of Jesus as wearing a loin cloth or something while he was hanging there whenever we draw pictures of the scene, but remember that the soldiers had already divided up all his clothes, including his undergarment). Here in the midst of all this pain and humiliation, a convicted criminal, someone who had absolutely nothing worthwhile to show from his entire life, makes a request with his dying breath:
Jesus, I’ve been a horrible person. Everything I’m getting right now, I deserve. Everything you’re getting right now, you don’t deserve. Please…do you have any mercy left to give? By the end of the day, I’ll be dead, and I want to go to heaven with you. You’ve gone all over telling people that their sins are forgiven…is there any forgiveness left for me?
I tell you, if I was Jesus hanging up there, my first thought would be, “Seriously? Now? This is when you ask for forgiveness? Not two years ago, when I was passing by your town telling people that the kingdom of heaven was near? Not last year, when you saw me healing people around the time of the festival? Now that there’s absolutely nothing you can do to make up for what you’ve done, while everyone around me is insulting me and I can barely breathe, this is when you conveniently have a change of heart? What right do you have to ask for anything right now?”
I don’t know how Jesus had enough breath in his lungs to say anything at this point. At the most, all I can imagine myself doing is giving a little grunt or something like that. But Jesus speaks; with his own dying breath, and only a few sentences left to give in his lungs, he responds to a dying man’s request. “Jesus…is there any forgiveness left for me…?”
“I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Jesus had just finished asking God for forgiveness for each of the people in the crowd insulting him…and now he calls for forgiveness to someone who has no hope for the future. Everyone else in the crowd…they’d have their chances in the future to atone for what they were doing. They would all be there in a little over a month, when Peter preaches his first sermon at Pentecost. They’d get a chance to change their ways…they could at least do something to make up for their part in this tragedy. But this guy dying next to him? This was it for him; with the hour and ten minutes he had left in his life, there was nothing he could do to even begin living out some kind of life deserving of forgiveness. He had no opportunity to show his remorse; no chance to right each of his wrongs. Certainly, his declaration of Jesus’ innocence is no credit to him; everyone involved in this scene, from the high priest to Pilate himself, knew Jesus was innocent. And of what worth is the testimony of a criminal sentenced to death, anyway?
The late Christopher Hitchens never stopped criticizing Christianity for what he considered a wickedly immoral teaching: the concept of vicarious atonement. Vicarious atonement is the idea that we can have a forgiveness that we didn’t earn…a forgiveness that was earned by someone else…because the punishment was taken by someone else…the cornerstone of Christianity. The idea that because Jesus suffered a punishment from God that he didn’t deserve we now are free from a punishment that we do deserve, is usually offensive for two reasons:
One, we usually don’t like to think of ourselves as deserving punishment. When we set the moral bar for ourselves, we always set it so it’s right where it’s convenient for us to reach. Our default assumption when we think of God’s justice is that what we’re doing is just good enough to escape punishment. Hey, I’m better than that guy, right? That guy’s in trouble, but me? I’m set. Even when we’re at fault, we prefer to think that with enough effort on our part, we can correct the fault on our own. Hey, no one’s perfect, right?
Two, we don’t want forgiveness to come to others easily. When someone messes up, especially when they commit some wrong against us, we want them to know it. We want them to feel bad. “Do you have any idea what you did to me? You’d better do something about it! You’d better be really sorry!” Free forgiveness is so often annoying to us whenever it’s applied to anyone other than ourselves, or at the very most anyone other than our immediate friends and family. A criminal? My enemies? Forget it; they’d better be working day and night to pay off what they did. They shouldn’t expect forgiveness from God any time soon; not until I’m satisfied with what they’ve done to make up for it.
This isn’t to say that it isn’t important to punish crime, or that we should blindly allow people to hurt us again and again. Forgiveness, however, goes beyond that. God’s mercy, a mercy we are called to emulate, by very definition goes beyond what is deserved. As Jesus was suffering on the cross, he was paying price so that dying criminal next to him could be forgiven. As the request is presented to Jesus, Jesus’ response is, “Of course you’re coming to heaven. I’m paying the price for you right now. Annnnd, there we go. Done. You’re in.” Some people think this cheapens God’s grace…anything offered for free is too cheap to be worthwhile. But that’s not true…God’s grace isn’t cheap, and it wasn’t offered for free. In reality…it cost a lot…more than we can possibly imagine. We just weren’t the ones who paid for it.
Jesus didn’t give any conditions along with his response to this dying man. The request was given, and the request was granted; no strings attached, no repayment possible. This here is the heart of Christianity; forgiveness granted by request, rather than by bargain. In this truth, there is a great freedom. There is a freedom from self-condemnation. There is a freedom from fear of judgment. Even a fear of failure fades as the reality of an unconditional promise for our eternal future takes root in our thinking and mindset. I’ve met people who believe they’ve never done anything really wrong. I’ve met people who believe their past is so bad it can never be forgiven. Both extremes are dangerous, and both are wrong. Ultimately, we need to understand that forgiveness is needed, and it is given. We need to be willing to ask. We need to be willing to accept it for what it is: grace.
Mercy was granted from a dying breath…to a request coming from a dying breath. While our lives may have many more years left in them than this dying man, our requests are coming from breaths dying just as much, spoken from bodies that have limited time left on earth, be they days, years, or decades left. And that mercy is granted to us from that same dying breath from the cross: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”