Two folks at CLC recently asked about “the good thief” in Luke 23:39-43. Jesus, on the cross, is surrounded by two crucified criminals (or thieves). One joins with the Roman soldiers, mocking Jesus. The good thief does the opposite. He recognizes Jesus’ innocence and asks for Jesus to remember him when “you come into your kingdom.” Jesus tells this criminal that, today, he will join Jesus in Paradise.
But did Jesus really mean “today?” And how does that work when we assert in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus will return “to judge the living and the dead?” Did the thief go to heaven or is he somewhere else, waiting to be judged? And hidden under this question is another one: when we die, do we go to heaven right away or will we wait for some judgment in the future?
One way to think about this conversation between Luke and the Creed is about the experience of time. We tend to experience time in a very linear way. Friday is followed by Saturday, our 20th year is followed by our 21st, and grade 11 is followed by grade 12. Much of our lives follow a step-by-step process and we experience time in that way. We live a linear experience of history.
The episode with the good thief expresses is an event caught in history. Jesus and the thief are at the end of their lives. This conversation is the last one that Jesus will have with another person before his resurrection. The good thief expresses a sudden understanding that Jesus is innocent and that he has a kingdom in heaven. He asks to be remembered by this king when Jesus dies and Jesus’s promises even more. Jesus promises this thief a relationship with Jesus in the fullest expression of heaven that there can possibly be: complete communion with God forever. The Creed also asserts this experience of time for Jesus is described as returning, in the future, to cast some final judgment, and unite earth and heaven forever.
So we can see that Luke knows that we live lives caught in linear history. But he also asserts that God doesn’t because, for Luke, everything after Jesus’ death is a unified and timeless event. It’s important to know that Acts is part 2 of the Luke story as was written by the same author. We see in both texts Jesus ascending multiple times and he’s continually interacting with the apostles’ at different places at almost the exact same time. Jesus and God are not bounded by time or our experiences of time. We are still living life in a linear way but God and Jesus are not. Jesus, instead, is interrupting our linear experience of time by proclaiming promises that invert our step-by-step experience of life. When we are claimed in our baptism, God isn’t waiting for us to take a few steps before claiming us as God’s own. No, God interrupts and intervenes immediately and asserts God’s love and grace for us. God’s grace isn’t something we work for; it’s something that is given. And this grace, and love, is timeless.
I believe the Creed asserts this as well. Although we can read that line about future judgment in a linear way, I hear a promise for today. Like Luke, we’re in the time after Jesus’ death. We’re in this wild time where Jesus’ promises, rather than our experiences of time, are absolute. Our life is no longer defined by the steps we take or the ladder we try to take to God. Instead, our life is defined by the promises God makes through Jesus. Jesus told that thief that today, he will experience paradise, because Jesus’s journey through the Cross is a victory offered to all. The Creed promises that God is in control. By asserting that Jesus will return, we trust that we are not journeying through our lives alone or in isolation. We are, instead, wrapped up in a journey where God’s love and grace will finally win. The Creed isn’t contradicting Jesus’s words. It is, instead, supporting them. It is confessing that we place our ultimate trust in God through Jesus. What Jesus says, goes. Jesus promised that thief paradise and relationship with him on that literal day. Jesus promises us paradise and relationship today as well. Jesus’ authority and mercy is the timeless truth that we are caught up in. The good thief story isn’t really about this criminal’s sudden change of heart. It is, instead, a story about Jesus’ goodness and love. Jesus came to set free the oppressed and he does that for all of us – including that thief.
*The background for this comes from Raymond Brown’s wonderful two volume work: The Death of the Messiah. It’s a great overview of Jesus’ death and a great introduction to a massive amount of scholarly research. I recommend it if you’re looking for something really meaty and academic to start your deep journey into the passion narrative of Jesus.