St Luke 23.39ff - Jesus Remember Me
This second word from the cross comes, as does the first, in Luke’s account of the passion of Jesus. It shares all the critical problems that attend the seven reported words from the cross such as the virtual impossibility of speech for someone undergoing the inhuman punishment of crucifixion, and then this passage has more. The offer of paradise today contradicts other passages in the NT and reflects a view of life after death that does not appear in Christianity until around the third generation of believers (who were almost entirely converts in the Hellenistic world).
The Anglican attitude to Historical Criticism
It is, I believe, one of the great glories of the Anglican tradition that it does not offer a diet of preaching and teaching that requires one to leave one’s intellect in the Church foyer and enables us to acknowledge these serious critical and historical issues. The great gain is that our Anglican tradition makes it possible for us to use the results of careful critical historical study to recognize that what we are given in the gospel narratives is frequently an insight into how the earliest followers of Jesus remembered him and understood what he had taught. The gospels are rather like a negative, which has had several exposures. (Remember how easy it was to do that with a trusty old Kodak?)
Just because it is historically quite improbable that Jesus delivered some of the sayings attributed to him, it does not mean that they do not have the status of scripture and are important for us. It does, of course require us to ask, “What exactly is the status of the Bible?” But that is a topic for another time.
A Word of Hope
Luke’s first word underlines the centrality of forgiveness; his final one, at the moment of death, expresses absolute trust in God; “I hand over my whole life to you”, he cries: this second saying in Luke’s account focuses on faith and hope. All three of the sayings from Luke contrast in some measure with Mark and Matthew. There is no hint of the despair that we hear in the cry, “Why have you forsaken me?”, which Luke replaces by “Into your hands I commend my spirit”.
It is important for us to remember that we are with a congregation many decades after the searing events of the day, looking back to those events through the vibrant faith in the Resurrection.
Reasons for Despair
They and we look at the terrible state of this world: at misused power, at innocent victims destroyed by that power; we are reminded of the evil done by violent people like the two real criminals being executed at the same time as Jesus; we are appalled by sectarian hatreds, racial divisions and deeply prejudiced views of differences in human sexuality. We look out on all this, often, by means of a flickering screen in our very living room and we may well be tempted to despair, to think either that there is no God and, indeed, never was one, or to feel that God has indeed forsaken us. Perhaps God has in the divine inner councils decided to abandon the wonderful experiment of life. As we look out on the apparently endless series of horrors that we hear of and are in some cases personally involved in, such despair does not seem all that inappropriate.
But then, we recall that we are standing with that congregation of the late first century C.E. for whom Luke wrote and hearing his version of what Jesus said and did. They and we recognize that awful as these events were, God’s power had not been destroyed: we realize this because we look back at the events of that Friday upheld by faith in what happened beginning on the following Sunday. We look back, that is, through the lens of the resurrection, and so can say with St Paul as he wrote to Corinth, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (I Cor. 1.25).
The account of the “penitent” robber is full of hints that there is another side to the horrors we see in the world around us. The man represents humans who have come to the end of the road; for whom addiction, perhaps, seems beyond beating or grief beyond bearing. Neville Ward says of these situations, “Reports that come from the depths suggest a hidden hopefulness.” (Friday Afternoon, p 35). Of course many times hope does not emerge to prevent a suicide or a slide into irreversible depression. But it does happen sometimes, pointing to a deep intuition of the fundamental goodness of creation; an intuition, against all appearances perhaps, that love is greater than hate, hope more life-giving than despair and light, ultimately, resisting extinction in darkness.
The thieves are at the end of life and hope. The first one is full of bitter scorn. In some unfathomable way, the second prisoner, at the very end of the road, on the brink of final loss, finds hope and faith, and his words will bear a closer look.
‘Remember’ in the Old Testament
First of all, he rebukes the other condemned man, recognizing that, imperfect as it is, the human justice system can in some measure differentiate between guilt and innocence. Secondly, the thief uses a biblically charged word: “remember me”. The New Testament writers, steeped as they are in the Jewish scriptures, recognize that ‘remember’ implies much more than merely bringing up a mental image of a past event. It is used often in an address to Yahweh asking God to remember the covenant. This means, “make effective in action now the promises you made to us, that we should be your people”. Luke in his report of this man’s address to Jesus, displays the belief of the post-Easter church that even in depths of pain and despair, God has not deserted us and that the deeply embedded spark of hope can spring to a flame as we turn, as the second prisoner did, to this helpless bearer of the divine love suffering with us.
Finally, Jesus’ answer: the words “Today you will be with me in Paradise” are a critical quick sand, apparently contradicting the later creeds, and using a rare word whose meaning is far from precise. It is this lack of precision in the word paradise that can cut through the thicket (if I may change the metaphor). Although Paradise had come to be applied to the Garden of Eden at the beginning of history and to an idyllic existence beyond the end of history, in its three NT uses it means little more than “close to God”. It is quite typical of the NT to eschew altogether speculation about the state of existence after death. Paul’s basic position is that the dead are “in Christ with God”. The later mediaeval maps of heaven, purgatory and hell were centuries in the future of the NT writers; we may continue to appreciate the magnificent poetry of Dante and Milton, but we should not be bound by their imagery.
Luke’s Message in the Word to the Robber
So Luke’s message for us in this word is that as we look out at this wretched world and as we suffer the pain, fears and awful losses it deals out to us, we can go on in hope with Christ who suffers alongside us; we can go on in hope that in spite of all appearances in the end, in Paul’s words, “God will be all and in all”.