08-12-18 – “Faces of Our Faith: The Penitent Thief”


“Faces of Our Faith: The Penitent Thief”

Rev. Kevin Hay

Luke 23: 32-43

32Two others also, who were criminals, 

were led away to be put to death with him. 

33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, 

they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, 

one on his right and one on his left. 

34Then Jesus said, 

“Father, forgive them; 

for they do not know what they are doing.” 

And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 

35And the people stood by, watching; 

but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, 

“He saved others; let him save himself 

if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 

36The soldiers also mocked him, 

coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, 

“If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 

38There was also an inscription over him, 

“This is the King of the Jews.” 

39One of the criminals who were hanged there 

kept deriding him and saying, 

“Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 

40But the other rebuked him, saying, 

“Do you not fear God, 

since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, 

for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, 

but this man has done nothing wrong.” 

42Then he said, 

“Jesus, remember me 

when you come into your kingdom.” 43He replied, 

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


This worship series on Faces of Our Faith

has given us some tough passages the past couple of weeks…

we move from last week’s story

where Judas betrays Jesus with the Kiss of Death

to the horrific scene of that death…

we often call the Passion of the Christ

today we have the passage that is often read during Holy Week 

on Good Friday

as we move from the Last Supper to the Cross, 

and eventually the Resurrection…

and when we think about the Passion of the Christ

we often think of Passion as something horrific

Passion as God’s Great Suffering

in this slow and degrading death 

but Craig Kocher argues 

that there is more than one way to see the Passion

that perhaps the Passion isn’t just a horrific story

about God’s Great Suffering…


The word “passion” is usually thought of in terms of God’s suffering.

However, there is another way to think of passion,

and that is connected to God’s love.”

fortunately, Luke spares us many of the gruesome details

simply saying “They crucified Jesus there with the criminals.”

without getting too into the physical process…

instead, we catch a few glimpses of the various characters 

surrounding this horrific death…

this story often read on Good Friday,

“… is a story of individual and corporate sin, betrayal, 

and abandonment – of the priests, Pilate, the soldiers, 

the blood-thirsty crowds, Peter, Judas, and the other disciples.”

here we have people casting lots and dividing up Jesus’ clothes

soldiers and leaders

mocking Jesus

saying why can’t the King of the Jews, save himself…

offering him sour wine…

even one of the criminals dying beside him, says

“Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 

but then we have the other criminal

the Penitent Thief, as our artist calls him…

sticking his neck out, even in the face of death…

rebuking the other criminal

admitting his guilt for the crimes committed

admitting that they have been condemned justly

and are getting what they deserve

but, yet, standing up for Jesus

saying – “this man has done nothing wrong.”

and ultimately acknowledging Jesus as the Christ

as the King of the Jews

by saying

“Jesu, remember me

when you come into your kingdom.”

as the crowds, soldiers, and leaders

all mocked Jesus, and were ultimately putting him to death

for claiming to be the King of the Jesus

the Penitent Thief takes the risk

of perhaps becoming a target for further suffering himself

at the risk of further pain and suffering

the Penitent Thief

speaks out on Jesus’ behalf

acknowledging Jesus as the Christ

as the King of the Jews

Craig Kocher says that

“The theology of Luke’s Gospel 

begins in the poverty of a stable 

and continues to narrate a world 

in which the mighty are knocked from their thrones, 

the lowly are lifted up, 

the hungry filled, and the rich sent away with nothing.

Luke grounds the story of God’s love in Jesus Christ

with the forgotten of the world.

Indeed, Luke ends this grisly Good Friday passage

with a condemned and dying thief

entering the paradise Jesus goes to prepare.”

at our Bible study this week

we spent a good bit of time reflecting on the question 

that artist Lisle Gwynn Garrity poses

“How did he know?”

How did this penitent thief know that Jesus was the Christ?

“Before he committed his crime, had he heard?

Had he heard of the One who healed and loved 

and came to turn the world upside down?

Or was it during the hike to Calvary hill,

the beams of his cross digging deep into his flesh,

that he saw the crowds swell for the One before him…

and he knew, for the first time, the weight of systemic injustice?

Or was it while they nailed them in, 

the piercing hammer pounding his own body to contort and heave,

that he saw his neighbor in perfect silence, 

hanging as if weightless in the air?

Or was it when he heard, “Forgive them, Father,”

the words pouring down like a warm bath?

Or was it when the other mocked him,

blood and hate and profane humanity spewing from his mouth,

that the contrast made the divine palpable

and quite easy to perceive?

How did he know that the One dying alongside him was blameless?

How did he know he was the Christ?”

and through our discussions

as we explored whether the Penitent Thief 

believed in Jesus before this moment, 

or came to believe somehow along the way to the cross 

or during the crucifixion…

as we discussed the many possibilities 

for how the Penitent Thief came to believe…

  • from the word spreading of his healing and love
  • the swelling crowds
  • the silent acceptance of the painful cross
  • the forgiveness shown to those full of hatred
  • the stark contrast between 
    • the brokenness of humanity 
    • and the holy presence of the divine…

I think we all landed in the same place as Lisle Gwynn Garrity…

“Regardless of how,

he was convinced of it the way death makes all things clear.

So he told the truth – about his own brokenness

and the suffering Savior beside him – 

opening himself to redemption,

pointing to the One who might bestow it.”

and that’s how the Passion of God’s Great Suffering

becomes the Passion of God’s Love

when even the lowest of the low

a person condemned to death for his crimes

acknowledges Jesus as blameless

and as the Christ, the King of the Jews…

God’s Passion turns from suffering to love…

One thing we all noticed in Bible Study Tuesday

while looking at the art work on the front of our bulletins…

was the way the hand of the Penitent Thief

seems to be so relaxed…

I imagine the hand of the other Criminal

didn’t look like this

I imagine that the other criminal – full of hate and anger

who mocks Jesus and would only believe in him 

if he saved him from imminent death

I imagine his hands are clenched tightly in a fist of anger 

or open wide fighting to hang on to his life…Whereas the Penitent Thief

as he acknowledges Jesus as blameless

and as the Christ, the King of the Jews

his hand seems to be relaxed… at peace…

almost as if he has submitted and released himself…

he’s no longer focused on himself

or hanging on to life in the present world

– like the other criminal…

but he’s focused on Jesus the Christ

and the kingdom to come…

as he says…

“Jesus, remember me, 

when you come into your kingdom.”

and even in the pain and suffering of crucifixion

the act of cknowledging Jesus as the Christ

and focusing on the kingdom to come…

Relaxes the Penitent thief and gives him peace

as he submits to Jesus and releases himself…

and that’s why Jesus responds to him saying.

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

and that’s what Jesus says to each one of us as well…

“you will be with me in Paradise.”

Just as Craig Kocher says…

“To the thief, he whispers the hope of eternity.

On the cross the passion of Jesus’ suffering

is surpassed by the passion of his redeeming love.

Good Friday reveals that only the tenacity of God’s love

is greater than the tenacity of humanity’s despair.”

“…In the suffering of the cross,

God stakes his life with the lonely, the sick,

the poor, the hurting, 

the brokenhearted – with all of us.”

Through the sweat and blood,

the thorns and nails,

the mockery and humiliation,

the burning fire of God’s love in Christ remains.

For souls condemned and dying are precious in his sight.”

So as we think about the Face of the Penitent Thief

and the hands relaxed and at peace…

may we all find it in ourselves

to always acknowledge Jesus as the Christ

so that we too –  can relax, and be at peace

submitting ourselves and releasing ourselves to Jesus

as we say

“Jesus, remember me 

when you come into your kingdom.” 

and may we hear Jesus reply…

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