Jesus And The Criminal: What This Teaches Us About Relationships
The Easter story, the death and resurrection of Jesus, reveals many important and wonderful things about God and our relationship with him. One thing I was struck by this Easter period was Jesus’ willingness to suffer and his willingness to step into our mess, which stresses the importance of his desire for an authentic relationship with us.
Easter really is a time which is exciting as well as saddening, a celebration as well as sobering. Remembering the bittersweetness of Jesus’ suffering and coming back to life brings with it a full rollercoaster of emotions.
As I was thinking about some of the ways that this can and should affect our relationships, I was drawn to the account in Luke’s Gospel of Jesus and the two criminals.
The Penitent Criminal
In the Gospel of Luke, he records an interaction which happens as Jesus is dying on the cross. On either side of him, there were two criminals, and they were all dying and suffering the fate of crucifixion. Luke 23:39-43 says:
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
There are so many things going on here that it would be foolish to think one short blog could do it justice, but I want to pick up on one thing that stood out to me. Namely: Jesus is making the promise as someone who’s suffering the same fate. Jesus is dying alongside the criminal.
What’s amazing about this passage is that this criminal is saying he is guilty. He realises he’s only got himself to blame for being in the position he’s in and he’s saying that Jesus is innocent; Jesus by contrast ‘has done nothing wrong’.
This passage sums up and makes tangible one of the key points of Easter: That the innocent Jesus dies for humanity who have gone astray. But that is not all this verse teaches us.
This makes the whole thing very relational
Remarkably, the innocent saviour chose to suffer alongside those who have messed up. He gave up his divine comfort and his right not to suffer and instead dies alongside the criminal to overcome the problems the criminal and the rest of humanity face.
This makes the whole thing very relational, which is often overlooked.
Relational vs An Exchange
The cross is nearly always understood and preached about in terms of a legal ‘exchange’. Jesus exchanges his innocence for our guilt to overcome the problem of sin and pay our debt. While this is true and I don’t want to diminish that, this isn’t the only thing going on.
Relationally, Jesus is standing alongside us in the mess. He is connecting to us on our level. He is not outside of our suffering, or standing above our mess yelling helpful advice, he’s standing with us as a friend.
He is experiencing the full force of the problems we experience, he’s in the suffering, speaking to us as someone who can understand. He lived a human life and suffered a human death.
‘Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.’
This isn’t just about dealing with a problem but is also about creating an authentic relationship by standing with us on our level, even though he didn’t need to.
This should impact the way we relate to God and others
He didn’t deserve to be killed alongside the criminal, but by doing so it demonstrates that he came to earth to build an authentic relationship with humanity, experiencing the mess we caused, taking on our problems and guiding us through as someone who is alongside us. (Read ‘Family’ Is Redefined In Light Of The Cross)
This Easter Monday and beyond, I hope you are able to (re)discover the wonder of the cross. I hope it reminds us that the joys and sadness of life are seen and transformed by Jesus in the moment of his death and resurrection.
I hope we (re)discover that our relationship with him is one that is built on a friendship, with someone who chose to stand with us and change our lives. This should impact the way we relate to God and others.
[Jesus said] Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Imagine if we realised this talk with the criminal wasn’t just representing the transaction, but a profoundly relational moment. (Read Reflecting God’s Image Is Found In Plurality)
What stood out to you this Easter? Comments welcomed below
Originally posted 22/4/2019