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As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

The two criminals crucified with Jesus (Luke 23:39-43) are a microcosm of humanity under suffering. One says, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” The other says, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

The suffering of these two criminals is difficult to underestimate. Crucifixion was introduced by the Assyrians, but eight centuries later to the time of the Romans, the torture was down to a science. They knew where to drive the nails to maximize the pain. They knew how to stretch out the body to make the breathing most difficult. Few have felt what these men endured. Under that amount of suffering the mind begins to break. Minutes feel like hours, and hours feel like days. Looking death straight in the face, they had nothing else to gain and nothing left to lose. Even worse than the pain is the shame. People of the first century were raised without the Tylenol or painkillers of today. Pain was part of life, something to be endured for the greater cause of family or clan or country. Respect was the highest goal in their honor-shame culture. Crucifixion took away any last shred of dignity. Criminals were typically crucified naked on display near a busy road with their crime written above their heads.

Crucifixion was not for the common criminal. This was the worst punishment, reserved for slaves and threats to Roman rule. These two criminals would not have been petty thieves or common murderers. Their associate Barabbas was jailed for insurrection and murder (Luke 23:19,25). These two were threats to Roman rule. Today we would call them terrorists. Rome not only wanted these terrorists dead but also humiliated, dishonored in a public spectacle so that all would take warning never to rebel against Rome. These two criminals were not only suffering greatly and humiliated greatly but their life goal of overthrowing the oppressive shackles of pagan Rome was a failure. People can endure a lot of suffering for a cause, but these men were dying for a failed attempt. Their insurrection was lost. Their deaths did not advance their cause but the cause of Rome. Their deaths served to put the fear of Rome into the population, to deter future insurrectionists.

No doubt the questions of God’s power and goodness flooded their minds. Why would God permit this suffering and shame inflicted on his chosen people by the most reprehensible regime? Worse, why would the promised Messiah let this happen? Surely the guy who can stop a storm could stop Rome. Surely the one who can walk on water could free himself from a cross. Why would the messiah allow evil to win in this vicious way? If Jesus were the Messiah, why in the world would he be letting this happen? Letting the enemy win, allowing himself to not only be killed but shamed and humiliated as a slave. This is not what the Law and Prophets say about him, how he will have his enemies for a footstool and have a kingdom of world renown.

The first criminal had reasons for questioning whether Jesus was the true Messiah and demanding to be set free. We likewise have our low moments of questioning God. Bone cancer is found in children. A car crash suddenly snuffs out a young life full of promise. Wars rage as people suffer. Graft crushes justice. Mental illness destroys spirits. It’s difficult not to question God’s goodness or power. God, why would you look on at such terrible evil? Aren’t you the good and loving God who can do all things? Like the first criminal, we want Jesus to save himself and us. The Messiah should not be subject to such defeat. Evil must not be permitted to triumph. Neither should we have to suffer when we are good people. So the human mind goes. We have all been there. We have all been the first criminal, questioning God’s goodness and demanding relief. The notion of God allowing evil and suffering, even God himself sharing the burdens of both is a foreign concept to human thinking.

The first criminal represents the sinful human condition. The second criminal represents regenerated humanity. He suffers just as much as the first, but he sees his suffering in a whole different light. He looks at Jesus and sees the Messiah who has done nothing wrong, yet here is being punished alongside two criminals.

“How can you ridicule Jesus when you are under the same sentence as him?” he asks the first criminal. One crucified victim is in no place to mock another. This first criminal says nothing more. Then comes an amazing string of words: “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.” He does not demand the suffering to end, going against every agonized nerve in his body. He does not demand to be vindicated for being a good person on God’s side against Rome. He does not demand the Messiah fulfill his own notions of God’s plan for himself or the nation. Against all human instinct, the second criminal admits that his suffering is deserved. What sort of person says their suffering is deserved? Who says it when under excruciating pain, publicly shamed and with his dearest hopes and dreams shattered?

The second criminal knew he was a sinner. All Christians are self-proclaimed sinners deserving eternal punishment, how much less the sufferings of this life? What’s truly shocking is not that sinners suffer but that the sinless Jesus suffered the fate of the worst of sinners. Jesus Christ is the only completely innocent victim the world has ever seen. He is the only sinless person to walk the earth, yet was numbered with transgressors. Self-pity is the well-traveled road. Even the most mature have footprints on that path. Resisting the suffering servant’s cross is in the heart of every mortal. Like the first criminal, expecting and demanding relief and victory and glory is all we can see, even while Jesus demonstrates a way of godliness. This way stretches all human sensibilities and sounds like the worst of options, but the suffering servant invites us to the cross with him.

Somehow this second criminal knew that Jesus was more than an innocent victim. Somehow this terrorist saw what nobody else could see—Jesus dying on the cross was an act of his kingly reign. By his crucifixion, Jesus was reigning and overcoming the world. His death was actually life. His shame was glory. His defeat was victory. Miraculously, this second criminal understood what was really going on.

Thus, a request from the second criminal that does nothing less than send spiritual shock waves up to the present day: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The request is astounding for its faith and touching for its humility. Jesus’ own disciples had selfishly asked to sit at his right and his left in his kingdom. This man simply asks to be remembered. Every other follower of Jesus had either fled in terror or was weeping as if the crucifixion was a defeat. The second criminal had not followed Jesus or seen the miracles. His knowledge of Jesus’ teachings would have been rudimentary if at all. Yet with a faith that outshone the rest, the second criminal simply asks to be part of Jesus’ kingdom. He doesn’t ask for his suffering to end or to be saved from the cross. He asks only for a memory. An acknowledgement. One name on one brick of the palace walkway. A passing mention in the coronation speech. A footnote in the biography. Another name in the closing credits. The request is so modest that he seems reluctant to trouble Jesus for anything at all.

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

He asks for a memory, but he receives the promise of eternal life in paradise. His suffering is not eased. He is not granted a long life. He gets eternal life with Jesus. Such is the end for all of us who carry our crosses behind Jesus. The suffering in this life is real and formidable. The fact that Jesus faced the suffering of even death on a cross proves that the suffering now is more than worth the glory to be gained. The second criminal saw what 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 describes: Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

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