One could make a case that this thief, whom tradition names Dismas, needs to get his eyes checked. Maybe we could blame it on the crucifixion. After all, he’s nailed to a tree. He’s been hanging for a while. He may not be in his right mind. If he was, he wouldn’t seek help from the guy nailed next to him.
This appears the definition of the “foolishness of God” that Paul talks about. Greeks look for wisdom, Paul says. It seems foolish to think a crucified criminal can help me. Jews look for miraculous signs. That’s what the crowd tried to tease out of Jesus: “Come down, save yourself!” As the other gospels tell us, Dismas joined in with his comrade in crucifixion, whom tradition names Gestas, and blasphemed Jesus too. Who could look at Jesus, at the cross, at a man equally condemned and equally dying, and think, “This man can solve my problems.”
Yet that’s what Dismas does. He turns to Jesus and puts all the money in his pockets on Jesus and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Nothing but faith tells us to look at this disfigured man and see anything but what he appears to be: one more dying man. My eyes don’t see him taking up my wounds and death. My eyes don’t see him justifying many as he bears sins. My eyes don’t see Jesus dividing the spoils. My eyes don’t see the greatness of the Lord, God looking upon the lowly, lifting them up, helping his servants, remembering his promises.
My eyes see death and destruction. My eyes see failure. My eyes see one more “Messiah” hoisted on his own petard.
Then Jesus speaks, “I tell you the truth, today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Using C.S. Lewis’ trilogy of options, either Jesus tells the great lie of history, or he proves himself a loony beyond loonies. Or, he’s the Lord. The Lord to whom we go, with David, and say, “Have mercy upon me. Save me from bloodguilt. My sins confront me. You judge me rightly. Wash me. Give me a clean heart. Grant me a willing spirit. Sustain me.”
Dismas did. He came to Jesus with a word of faith, “Remember me.” God answered. “You will be with me in Paradise.”
Such a different response than everybody else who encountered Jesus that day. The crowds call him a rebel and revolutionary. They’d rather have Barabbas than Jesus. Herod hopes for a miracle – like Dismas – but – unlike Dismas – only to satisfy his morbid curiosity. Pilate knows him innocent. Dismas and Gestas rebuke and blaspheme at first: “You saved others!”
Until everything changed for Dismas. Was it when Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do?” Was it when Jesus, dying, says not only forgive, but takes a moment to provide care for his mother and John? Or had Dismas been taken faithfully to Saturday school as a child, and now the words his rabbi taught him about one pierced for transgressions and crushed for iniquities came to mind after years of ignoring them and trampling them under his sins and crimes?
Whatever it was, we rejoice, and we rebel. We rejoice: the lost has been found, the dead has come back to life. But, viscerally, we reject this deathbed conversion. We’re as happy with these things as those who worked all day in Jesus’ parable were happy to find that they got paid as much as those who worked an hour. Dismas gets to sin boldly, criminally even, earning a death penalty, and even mock Jesus on the cross in his last moments. Here’s another criminal in heaven.
Don’t dare rebel against this. This makes this Friday good. This gives us hope. Gestas curses God and dies. Dismas runs to God in his suffering. And God hears. Because that’s what God does. That’s what God promises. That’s what God speaks in his Word. This gives Baptism and the Supper any power: God’s Words. Turn back to tonight’s psalms: “Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” “They cried to you and were saved; in you they trusted and were not disappointed.” “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord, o Lord, hear my voice, let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy, if you kept a record a sins, o Lord, who could stand. I wait for the Lord, and in his Word I put my hope.”
We agree that there wasn’t much good to find in Dismas, except the good that the Holy Spirit worked. Dismas turned to Jesus. Cynically we say, “Better late than never.” But that’s the point. God thrusts his Son before our eyes. He tells us again and again who we are: thieves and criminals, mockers and blasphemers. Then he shows us his son. Declared innocent by Pilate. Declared innocent by Herod. Declared innocent by that Roman centurion. Declared innocent by Dismas. Declared innocent, finally, and most mightily by a world that turned dark and shook violently, by a temple curtain that ripped, and by a tomb that would not stay closed, could not stay closed, that could not condemn or keep this foolishly crucified Christ.
Standing next to Christ, or, as Dismas was, hanging next to Christ, leaves us with nothing. I can’t stand, or hang, next to Jesus. Yet Jesus hangs next to me. Instead of me. And this Word from God, this great, “I love you,” does not, as Isaiah says, return to God empty. This Word grabbed Dismas and changed him forever. He confessed his fault, his miserable fault, and hurled all his hope at Jesus and begged for mercy, begged for forgiveness, begged for grace, begged for a lowly place, to be a doorkeeper, in a kingdom he knew Jesus to be the king of. And Jesus said “Yes.” The cross is God’s great “Yes”, God’s “Amen.”
At the cross we see how serious God is in Psalm 50: “Call upon me in the day of trouble, I will deliver you, and you will honor me.” “I will deliver you,” he says. He means it. And he can back it up. He has a kingdom, a heavenly kingdom, whose spoils he divides, in a stunning way. Jesus makes sure that the last shall be first as he brings Dismas into the kingdom of God.
God did no differently to you. He washed you. He sanctified you. He justified you. As unclean as you are. As criminal as you are. He applied his logic to you, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” He did it by making the first last. His Son, the King, speaks these words of promise to Dismas and to you, as he dies. For you. In your place. On your cross. A good Friday indeed. Amen.