“One of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus” (Lk 23:39).
On an outcropping of limestone just outside a gate of Jerusalem, two men who had committed crimes and one who had not were “hanging.” They were hanging in crucifixion, suspended from nails driven through their wrists and ankles.
This was a fiendish method of execution. Once nailed up, the victims tortured themselves to death by pulling and pushing on the nails in the struggle to breathe.
It is hard to imagine how a crucified man could manage to speak at all. Yet one of the three was driven to such a frenzy by his pain that he screamed at a fellow victim: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.”
Jesus of Nazareth, hanging beneath a sign board that proclaimed him with cruel sarcasm to be “the King of the Jews,” drew all the man’s bitterness at a world of failed promises.
In response, the third man spoke up, not in anger but in sorrow. In a brotherly tone, he rebuked the first man: “Have you no fear of God?” He reminded him of the crimes they had committed that led to their condemnation.
And he defended Jesus. “This man has done nothing criminal.” Did he already know something about Jesus? At least, he had heard Jesus praying as he gasped for breath.
It is not surprising to find rage or confession of guilt from men in their death agony. But the third man’s next words are astonishing. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Looking at Jesus, the man saw no earthly king. On that, both criminals were in agreement — as was everyone who saw Jesus on the cross. Not that he had ever pretended to be an earthly king, but if anyone had ever hoped he would be, their hope was now being brutally extinguished.
No, the third man saw that Jesus was a much greater king than that — a king about to conquer death and open up a realm, a “kingdom,” of everlasting life. The man had no doubt that Jesus, who was dying the same miserable death as his own just a few feet away, was nevertheless Lord in a way that exceeds any earthly rule.
A great gift of God enabled him — and enables us — to grasp that reality.