Let me be a thief.
Or rather, let me be the thief.
You remember him. Stripped and pinned, dismantled and disoriented, he hangs between life and death, this world and the next.
Christ slumps nearby, a make-shift sign above his head reading THE KING OF THE JEWS.
When the Other Thief mocks Christ–taunting him with his inability to “save” himself (and them) from this horrific death–the Self-Aware Thief rebukes him.
Don’t you know who you are? Our deeds have condemned us to this death, but this man has done nothing wrong. Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.
What can he possibly mean by this request? Does he anticipate an earthly Kingdom? The Messiah overturning the Roman Empire and freeing the Jews? Even the disciples don’t understand when Jesus says “The Kingdom of God is within you,” so how would this thief, this criminal?
I’ve heard sermons on this passage, and often they attempt to interpolate a kind of Roman’s Road cognitive process for the Penitent Thief. He understands his sin and his need for a personal Savior, these sermons argue. He repents of his sin and confesses Christ as Lord. You too can repent of your sin and be saved, even in the last moments of your life.
I’m not a theologian or a pastor or a biblical scholar, but I hear this passage differently. I’m not sure the thief does understand what he’s asking for. He certainly doesn’t ask to be “saved.” His request is so humble, so small. Recall me, be mindful of me, return to me in memory. It’s the Other Thief, the demanding thief, who wants to be “saved” from his suffering.
Jesus’s response is just as puzzling. He promises the unimaginable–bliss, or the immediate presence of the divine. I tell you the truth, this day you shall be with me in Paradise.
This is so much more than “salvation.” This is so much more than relief from suffering or reprieve from punishment. This is so much more than streets of gold.
To exist in God’s memory–to directly experience his mindful awareness of us–that is the Kingdom that is already within us.
Remember us, Lord. Right now. Right here. As we hang on these crosses of our own making.