Monday, March 21, 2016

The Criminal and the Cross

This is a fictionalized account of what may have happened between Jesus and the criminal on the cross next to Him, the one who accepted the gift of salvation. It's in first person, which means that it's from the perspective of the criminal. Although this is fiction, I'm hoping there's some truth in it. 
I was crucified beside Jesus. A few of my victims turned out to watch me die. I deserved to die. I made a mess of my life and hurt a lot of people along the way. Nobody loved me and nobody would miss me.
The people in the mob were there to see Jesus. The Pharisees had ignited their hatred. From what I’d heard of Him, He never hurt anyone. I’d heard that He healed people, inspired them, and given them hope. He taught people about the kingdom of God and encouraged them to live good lives. I’d also heard that the trial was a travesty. So what had Jesus done to deserve the ultimate punishment? He hadn’t shown the proper respect for the priests and the government.
By the time they actually nail you to the cross, you’re already exhausted. The soldiers who did the hammering were real spooks. Driving spikes through a living man’s wrist is barbaric. I could whack someone over the head and take his money. That was easy. But I don’t think I could stomach what those soldiers had to do. When the three of us were all up on our crosses, the guy to the right of Jesus tried to agitate Him. I’m ashamed to say that I joined in. “Save yourself, and us,” we said, mocking Him.
Jesus looked around at us and at all the people who were insulting Him. Then He looked up and said, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” He was innocent, dying a death as slow and as painful as dying could be. He should have been angry, but He was talking about forgiving. I thought to myself either He was crazy or there really was something special about Him.
I was about to die the way I had lived, being hateful to someone who was decent, who had at least tried to do good things for others. I was completely pathetic. I decided to stop wasting what little time I had left. “Shut up,” I told the other criminal. “You and I deserve this, but Jesus hasn’t even committed a real crime. So shut your mouth.”
Crucifixion is excruciating, of course. It’s also degrading and humiliating. You’re hanging there, naked, for hours. People can say anything and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. They can take a break and come back if they want to. One of the worst things about being crucified was not being able to scratch an itch. See, after a while you take the pain for granted. You know there’s not going to be any relief and you accept that. Then you get a killer itch that will not go away. And you wish you could reach it because a simple scratch could end that particular torment.
What they did to Jesus was beyond brutal. The soldiers had truly rearranged His face. He barely looked human. His lips were puffed out. His entire face was black and blue with bumps and bruises, except for His nose. It was unbroken and straight. Everybody knows about the crown, but I was close enough to see the spittle mixed with blood in His hair and His beard. It was disgusting. The blood from the wounds on His back glued Him to the lumber. Every time He moved, He opened Himself right back up.
I asked Him about His life, whether it had been worth it to live a good life and to try to get other people to live good lives, only to have them turn on Him like a pack of jackals. He told me there was no way for me to understand it, but yes, it was worth it. Then, I don’t know why, but I asked Him about His kingdom. He said there was a place for me there.
"But how?" I asked. "I’m an evil man. I’ve killed for pocket change." Jesus said He knew about all that, and, even so, He would accept me.
Still, it didn’t seem possible. "I’m going to be dead in a few hours. I haven’t done one good deed my whole life, and I’ll never be able to do anything good. How could I possibly be worthy?"
Jesus said, "Friend, you’ve stumbled onto the key. There’s nothing you can do to earn your way into my kingdom. But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope. It means that you have to look outside yourself for the answer. It’s true that you’ve lived an awful life. I hate to see anyone live the way you’ve lived, hurting other people and hating yourself. But at least you know that you’re a sinner. You also appear to know who I am, as unlikely as it must seem here today. If you want to enter into my kingdom, all you need to do is ask for it and receive."
For the first time in a long time, I felt love. It was radiating out from Him. The pain in my body eased up. I asked Him to remember me when he came into His kingdom. He said, "I tell you the truth. Today, you’ll be with me in paradise."
I believed Him. I was hanging, half-dead, and I knew that His promise was real.
He died before I did. When He cried out to His father, it was the loneliest voice I’d ever heard. He seemed bewildered. I wanted to relieve Him somehow, to comfort Him in some way. What a strange, wonderful feeling that was for a man like me!
Jesus cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" It got dark and everything got quiet. He was gone. A wave of doubt swept over me, but it only lasted a moment. I could still feel His love, and I knew it was the most powerful force a human being could encounter. It was real and I knew I would see Him again.
Then came the rumble of an earthquake. When the shaking was over, the centurion cried out, "Surely, this man was the Son of God." Most of the spectators were gone. The Lord’s followers were leaving, their heads hung low. The wave of doubt had swept over them too, but they hadn’t experienced His love in those last hours the way I had. I wanted to tell them that the love of Jesus was real, real enough to save a dog like me.
I passed out. When I came to, a soldier was breaking my legs. I barely felt it. The other criminal screamed in agony when his legs were broken. Since Jesus was already dead, the soldier speared Him in the side instead of breaking his legs.
A murderous rage welled up in me. My strength came back for a moment, and with it all my pain. If I could have gotten my hands on that brute, I swear I would have choked the life out of him.
Then a miracle happened. I glimpsed the humanity and the misery beneath the man’s depravity. I remembered the Lord’s compassion and I felt His love once more. However, this time it was flowing out of me. I wept, in grief over what had been done to Jesus and in joy over what He had done for me. A while later, I met my Lord in paradise. He is faithful and true.
Jesus accepted the criminal next to him and his acceptance was not based on anything good the criminal had done or would ever do. The criminal next to Jesus was crucified because he deserved it. And yet, when he asked Jesus to remember him, Jesus promised him that they would meet again in paradise that day. The criminal next to Jesus couldn’t do anything to earn his way into the kingdom. 
So what did the criminal next to Jesus have going for him? He acknowledged that he was a sinner and that he deserved to be punished for his sins. Then he recognized Jesus as the way into the kingdom of God and he asked Jesus to remember him when He came into His kingdom. There was nothing complicated about it then, and there’s nothing complicated about it today. If you’d like to be accepted by Jesus the way he accepted the criminal next to him, pray this prayer:
Jesus, I confess that I am a sinner and that I’ve done some bad things in my life. I know that I’m not worthy of your grace and I know that I can never earn my way into your kingdom. I recognize you as the one true God and as the only way into the kingdom of God. Please forgive me for my sins the way you forgave the criminal who was crucified next to you. Thank you. Amen.
Notes from Danny
Many years ago, I was at the home of a mentor who invited me to pray the prayer of salvation, to turn my will and my life over to God, so to speak. I saw no pressing need to do that. It seemed like something I could get around to someday, perhaps. On that cold night in late December of 1980, I rode my motorcycle to my garage apartment in a rundown part of Jacksonville.
In the driveway I was confronted by two men, one of whom had a shotgun and was ready to blow me into eternity. I wondered if I would ever have an opportunity to pray again. They eventually came to the conclusion that I wasn’t the guy they were looking for and shot out the windows of a neighbor’s car. The police showed up a little later.
After things settled down, I went into my little apartment, got on my knees, and turned my will and my life over to Jesus. I’ve fallen short many times since then, but He never has. Thank you Jesus!
This story and two others are available on Kindle or on Kindle apps. One of the other stories is Pilate's Dilemma and it's from the perspective of Pontius Pilate. The other is The Epistle of Judas and it's from the perspective of Judas Iscariot. If you read on Kindle or on a Kindle app, you can get it for free through Easter Sunday. (I always make the ebook available around Holy Week.)

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