Jesus said to the criminal dying beside him: Truly I tell you today you will be with me in paradise.
This is another in a series for Before the ending of the day where I am considering each of the last words of Jesus as he died on the cross. I wonder what meaning they may have for our own contemplation of death and dying.
Jesus died, crucified between two criminals. They argued over Jesus and his forgiveness of his executioners. One thought Jesus could get them out of there, the other saw an innocent man who shouldn’t have been on the cross in the first place. (Luke 23:32-43)
Jesus promised this man that they would be both be in Paradise that very day.
I wonder whether Jesus was being ironic; after all we are told in John’s gospel that there was a garden nearby and the meaning of Paradise is a beautiful garden. “You see that peaceful place over there? We’ll soon be there.
The words of the criminal have been used to justify death-bed conversions and the notion of Paradise has been the basis of various interpretations of heaven. They tend to say more than this brief conversation can carry.
What can be said is that this frightened man is longing for hope. He hopes that his agonising death is not the end and for whatever reason believes that Jesus, even as his powers wane can do something about it.
Jesus simply gives the comfort he needs to hear. He tells him that both of them as condemned criminals are on the outside looking in. They have not walked among the pleasure gardens of the privileged. They are in no better position than their exiled ancestors who had not been invited into the parklands of their captors and so poured out their grief and fear by the waters of Babylon.
Dying creates distance. We talk of a dying person slipping away or going on their last journey. The time for small-talk is over but that is all that we often feel we have left. It’s all too immense.
I wonder how many feel, like me that I had left it too late to say what I really wanted to say. Perhaps they, who are on that last journey, know this more than we realise and simply want to hear hope and the touch of a hand from us.
Jesus reduced the impact of death and spoke hope to that dying man.
In his third chapter Luke traces the family tree of Jesus back to the time of Adam i.e. the Garden of Eden. Might this give meaning to the words of Jesus? He was giving hope of a return to the beginning and a chance to start again in a place fit for the repentant.
A desert oasis with its promise of refreshment and relief was a model for the paradise gardens shaped by Middle Eastern people. Was this a vision of post-death landscape in the mind of the Messiah?
Perhaps the most important comfort in his words is that Jesus promised more than the criminal’s words justify.
Jesus spoke as a compassionate innocent. After their execution they would enter a garden in full bloom where they could rest. No fires of hell. No shadowy limbo.
All that can be said is that Jesus’s body was taken down and laid in a garden tomb. But is it too much to wonder that nearby was laid a stranger who he was trying to console shortly before they both died. (John 19:41)?
So Before the end of the day may we teach ourselves to pray:
Our Father in heaven,
there is no bargaining with you;
yet graciously offer us a hope
that will take away
both defiance and fear;
before we come to the close of our little day.