Mercy Kills Me

For Lent I’ve been trying to pray everyday with the Passion parts of the Gospels. Today was Luke 23:39-43. Jesus is crucified with two criminals. One who is “bad” and one “good”.

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Sometimes us Christians are plagued by the curse of familiarity. Its tempting with this part of the passion to just gloss over and simplify it because we’ve heard it so many times. One criminal is angry and one repents. Jesus rewards the repentant criminal with “today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Today in prayer I was wondering what the repentant criminal was thinking. His words seem odd.

He’s saying his fear of God comes from the fact that He is condemned to die next to a man he strongly believes is innocent. It seems like Jesus and the criminals spent a good amount of time with each other. All three were “led away to be put to death” (Luke 23:32) and this makes me imagine all three of them making the journey from Jerusalem to the outer walls and hill of Golgotha. For some reason the repentant criminal knows Jesus is innocent. And this knowledge makes him feel his own guilt all the more.

I imagined myself, covered in guilt and being sent to my just punishment for my sins, like a criminal. How intense would I feel my guilt as I walked beside innocence himself? If I was forced to carry the instrument of my just death-sentence alongside an innocent man doing the same, how would that affect me? Would my cross seem a little lighter, my fear a little absurd, and my suffering a little small? Would I feel the pain of Jesus more than my own pain?

Crucifixion was reserved only for the worst of criminals. Obviously these two guilty criminals did something so heinous and inhumane that the only acceptable punishment was a death that matched the perverseness of the crime.

The repentant criminal clearly believes on some level that Jesus is more than a man when he says “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power.”

The words that kept ringing in my head as I put myself in the place of the repentant sinner are: “I deserve this. You don’t deserve this.”

Walking next to a bloodied and beaten innocent man to our execution.

“I deserve this.”

“You don’t deserve this.”

Walking in guilt next to the Son of God innocent and totally rejected.

“I deserve this.”

“You don’t deserve this.”

Being crucified to my own cross. I who caused evil, hurt, pain, deception, suffering, destruction.

Watching nails go through the hands and feet of the one who did nothing but love, heal, forgive, accept, build, and purify.

“I deserve this.”

“You don’t deserve this.”

I found myself screaming from the cross of my own sin:

I deserve this! You are all mad men! God is a madman! Take this innocent man’s pain and give it to me! My hands deserve nails and His deserve adoration. I deserve this. Crucify me twice, but don’t let me watch his blood spill and mix with mine. I can’t bare to watch it. It is a scandal for the martyred man to die for the the one who makes him a martyr. The executed is dying for the executioner. Surely a graver sin is heaped on my guilt by condemning me to hang next to love’s hanging? Does not this act of God make the depths of your soul shudder? God is a madman! Justice is being wretched apart in my soul by a mercy that will surely break me.

The just sentence is hard. But who could survive this sentence of mercy? Who could accept it easily? Who could live in a kingdom with a justice that hurts like this mercy?

Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.

Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power.

Jesus, remember me.

440     Jesus accepted Peter's profession of faith, which acknowledged him to be the Messiah, by announcing the imminent Passion of the Son of Man. He unveiled the authentic content of his messianic kingship both in the transcendent identity of the Son of Man "who came down from heaven", and in his redemptive mission as the suffering Servant: "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Hence the true meaning of his kingship is revealed only when he is raised high on the cross. Only after his Resurrection will Peter be able to proclaim Jesus' messianic kingship to the People of God: "Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified."

211     The divine name, "I Am" or "He Is", expresses God's faithfulness: despite the faithlessness of men's sin and the punishment it deserves, he keeps "steadfast love for thousands". By going so far as to give up his own Son for us, God reveals that he is "rich in mercy". By giving his life to free us from sin, Jesus reveals that he himself bears the divine name: "When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will realize that "I AM"

Photo by Doug Weaver

Edmund Mitchell writes here and at You can tweet him at @edmundmitchell.