By Sister Mary-Paula Cancienne, Ph.D 

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”   

Luke 34:43, New Oxford Study Bible

Driving along the Interstate, occasionally I see billboards promoting the belief, “Jesus Saves,” or a graphic deploring the theory of evolution, or sometimes, beyond the billboards, I see planted neatly on a hilltop, three simple white crosses. 

I’m sure you have seen these kinds of billboards and crosses, too.   

Those crosses refer to a story in the Gospel of Luke (34:32-43) where three men are being crucified, together, on a hill called The Skull. Luke, ever the creative storyteller, purposefully and effectively draws us into a scene of contrast, conflict, drama, and suspense, with resolution cresting toward paradise.  

Execution, legal and otherwise, is a horrendous act.  Some purveyors of death want to prolong the suffering, others want to make it “humane,” and some simply want the whole thing done cheaply and efficiently, such that pound-for-pound they deem a just revenge has been extracted.  

According to Luke’s gospel story, women at The Skull mourned for one, the prophet accused of blasphemy, named Jesus, whose name means “the Lord saves” in Hebrew.  In his abject naked vulnerability, the soldiers mocked him, and those in charge scoffed at him. — “Oh yes, he saved others, let him save himself!” — “This is the King of the Jews!” — One of the criminals exclaimed: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.”    

Just as one criminal is taunting, the other criminal hears “us” and he is shaken with maybe, just maybe. That is, if this man can really save himself, maybe he can save us, too. (When things get really, really bad, we can fall into bottomless despair, or delusional hope, or see things starkly, even calmly clear.) 

The second criminal then speaks a last-ditch plea, one we have all made even when we knew the outcome was doomed, yet automatically we still beg for some release against an unwanted fate, for ourselves, for another, or for other kinds, whose clock is ticking down to death or toward some inevitable catastrophe. Spontaneously he utters: 

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 

This criminal has already acknowledged his and the other nameless criminal’s guilt and that he thinks they deserve what they get, yet he does not ask to be saved or spared from a merciless kind of justice that awaits. His only request is to be remembered by this innocent one, a near-to-death, nailed-to-a-tree man when he somehow enters into his so-called kingdom which he spoke about to many from village to village.  

His request was not methodically discerned, there was no group consensus.  Instead, he gave voice to that pure human desire to be connected to something better than what he was facing and facing alone. His request to be remembered was his last act, which he expressed with freedom and clear focus of being:  

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”   

Who can say what these words really hold or mean, or if they were ever said, or if Luke created them as he aimed to capture some essence of who he thought Jesus to be.  Many of us have chanted these words in the stillness of candlelight at an evening Taize prayer gathering, maybe in Burlingame, California, or Taize, France, or Peoria, Peru, or Manila, Philippines. These affective, melodious words touch us in a place beyond dogma or belief systems.     

Luke’s words reflect an abundant and generous Great Mystery who gives more than we request. He shows Jesus responding directly, with assurance and embrace. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” The “you” across translations appears to be singular, but is it? More so, what is meant by “Paradise.” What do you think? 

This New Testament story refers back to early Hebrew myths. The second creation myth in the Book of Genesis has Adam and Eve in the Garden of Paradise. Luke points us back to this mythological paradisal, fanciful order, followed by choice, struggle, and change. 

Implicit in Luke’s telling is a cosmic and embodied kind of disorder such that there is need for growth, compassion, wisdom, and a saving balm. Luke’s stories build upon this need. This particular place in Luke’s writing enfolds and unfolds towards greater possibility, even in the midst of death.   

There is much for us to ponder during these days of Lent, during hard days on this small, beautiful, and suffering planet we call Earth. However, if we find ourselves going along the Interstate, and if by chance we glance up and see a hilltop with three white crosses, we might just whisper, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and “Can you help us to help save each other, too”?