Updated: Apr 13, 2020
"Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)
by The Rev. Dr. Ben Ngaya-an
April 10, 2020
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to God our Lord, our Strength, and our Redeemer. Amen.
In the context of Covid-19 pandemic which has already taken a lot of lives around the world, it may seem very timely to talk about the promised paradise in the second last words of Jesus Christ. However, if we consider the general understanding of paradise as a place where good people will go when they die, then this may not be the best time to talk about it otherwise we might end up romanticizing the situation. Besides, it seems, to me, too morbid to even talk about it when people are trying their best to survive this pandemic. That being the case, I intend to comment briefly on the very nature of Jesus as reflected in his words and then say more about “the hopeful thief.”
The second last words of Jesus and the circumstance in which they were uttered speaks clearly of how selfless Jesus was. Right up to the very end of his earthly life, he was thinking about the need of other people. He has been consistently doing this since he humbled himself and took up our human nature on Christmas day until today when he carried our sins up on the cross. He has revealed the perfect image of His Father, our God, being a Loving God. It is on the basis of our acknowledgement of the divinity of Jesus that we must understand his unapparelled self-emptying nature. This must help us realize that, although we do need to exhort every Christian to emulate the self-effacing nature of Jesus especially in this time of crisis, we should do it with utmost caution in order not to put unnecessary pressure on our frontliners. They are but humans like us who are vulnerable to negative emotions like fear and anxiety. After all, one of the major themes of the season of lent is acknowledging our human limitedness in order to hope for divine intervention. This leads me to the next topic which is about “the hopeful thief.”
The daily surge in the number of confirmed cases in the country are making many people dread the uncertain future. In relation, many are deeply concerned about the possibility that the existing medical facilities will be overloaded very soon. We could go on with the long list of varying sources of anxiety to different people especially those in the margins of our society but I think you have been fed up already with these kinds of news. It suffices maybe to identify what seems to me the worst scenario and that is when many people start losing hope even on humanity as a result of hearing cases of self-preservation at the expense of other people, discrimination of the vulnerable people including our frontliners, and other behaviors that can be considered more animalistic than human.
It is in this context that we need to learn from the “hopeful thief” who saw even in the situation of eminent death an opportunity to utter a hopeful petition: “Jesus remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” To which the good Lord responded with comforting words: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Generally, many Christians would interpret this scene to suggest a very neat linear progression from knowledge of the consequence of sin, then fear of the Lord, then faith, and then hope. This is a tendency when we think that one could not desire for what he/she does not know and could not hope for what he/she does not believe. This view is certainly true to many people but I am now old enough to realize that life is not always like that. We all have our individual journeys. This makes me even entertain the possibility that the thief may have been God-fearing while a thief and hopeful while not having the clearest understanding of God’s nature, and that he did not need to have the strongest faith to ask a favor from Jesus, and that he only needed a single ray of hope to blurt out what he wanted at that very moment. In short, even in the midst of spiritual confusion, the thief miraculously gained his composure and rebuked the other thief and prayed the best prayer he may have uttered throughout his entire life.
May this be our source of inspiration, as we continue with our individual spiritual struggles brought about by this pandemic. Certainly, it is with a hopeful spirit that people, regardless of their level of spiritual maturity, can do wonderful things in the midst of crisis. It is through our hopeful spirit that we can focus more on the heroism of many people who are unexpectedly coming forward to offer helping hands. Most of all, it is due to hope that we usually find ourselves praying the best prayers that we could ever compose in our lifetime. And, hopefully, we will have peace of mind even in the midst of this pandemic. And, when that happens, life would be in the state of paradise. For paradise could mean the reign of the peace of God which surpasses all understanding not only in the life to come but also in our lives here and now.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.