“God’s anonymous: Two Thieves”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.
Late in the 1800s, Edwin Thomas, a small man with a large voice, was the master of the stage. He had debuted in Richard III when he was only fifteen, and soon became known as a leading Shakespearean actor. He performed Hamlet for a hundred consecutive nights, while the critics sang his praises.
But Edwin wasn’t the only actor in the family. He also had two brothers, one named John, and the other Junius, who were also stars of the stage. And in 1863 all three of them performed in a play called, Julius Caesar. Ironically, it was brother John who was cast as Brutus, Caesar’s assassin, a twist that would foreshadow what would happen only two years later…
…For it was in 1865 that brother John became a real life assassin. On a crisp April night, he slipped into the back of Ford’s Theater and fired a bullet at the head of Abraham Lincoln.
As you can imagine, from that moment on, John’s brother, Edwin, was never the same. Shame from his brother’s notorious crime drove him to an early retirement, a retirement from which he would never have returned, had it not been for a twist of fate at a train station in New Jersey.
You see, while Edwin was waiting for his coach, a young, well-dressed man suddenly lost his footing and fell between the platform and a moving train. Instantly, Edwin reached out, grabbed him, and pulled him to safety. Amid sighs of relief, the young man recognized him as Edwin Booth, but Edwin didn’t recognize him.
Weeks later, the chief secretary for Ulysses S. Grant sent him a letter, thanking him for saving the life of Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln.
John Wilkes Booth and Edwin Thomas Booth--one killed the president, while the other saved the president’s son. Same father, same mother, same profession--yet one chose death, while the other chose life.
For everything they had in common, the one difference between them was the path they chose in life, what would become the difference between life and death.
So it was in the words of Luke chapter 23. It begins with this: “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 into Your kingdom.’ And He said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise’” (Luke 23:39-43).
Whenever we think of Calvary, we always focus on the cross in the center, the one that held our Savior Jesus, dying for the sins of the world.
But there wasn’t only one cross on the hill that day. There were two more--one on the right, and the other on the left. And sometimes we wonder why.
Now we can’t say for sure, but it seems that the crosses on each side of Jesus represent, in a very real way, the destiny that lies before every one of us--heaven or hell--the place where we’ll spend eternity.
So on one side of Jesus stood what we might call the cross of rebellion. The Bible says, “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at Him” (Luke 23:39).
It wasn’t enough that Jesus had been convicted of crimes He didn’t commit. It wasn’t enough that soldiers beat Him to within an inch of His life, divided His clothes and drove nails through His hands and feet. And it wasn’t enough that nearly every one of His disciples had run away. But now, hanging somewhere between life and death, suffering the insults of soldiers, chief priests and everyone else who passed by, now even one of those who was crucified with Him began to heap insults on Him, saying, “Aren’t You the Christ? Save Yourself and us” (Luke 23:39).
So who were these men? Translators use different words to describe them, calling them “thieves,” “robbers,” “rebels,” “good-for-nothing lawbreakers,” “malefactors” and “bandits.” The word Luke used means, “members of the criminal class, members of the underworld.” Suffice it to say that these men were thugs who killed for profit, assassins. They were, after all, not merely beaten for their crimes. They were crucified.
Tradition suggests that they were political revolutionaries who were attempting to overthrow Roman rule. If that’s true, then it’s easy to say that they were ruthless men who thought nothing of using violence to achieve their political aims. One of them even admitted it. He said, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve” (Luke 23:41).
Beyond that, we don’t know anything else about them. We don’t know their names or their hometowns or the crimes that they committed. Were they partners in crime? Were they brothers? There’s no way we can know for sure. All we know is that both were sentenced to die at the same time, in the same place, on the same day and in the same way.
That very morning, both had been taken, bound and chained, from their cells. Both were forced to carry their own cross. Both had nails driven through their hands and feet. And before the sun set that day, both would die.
And while one demanded escape, “Aren’t You the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” the other begged for forgiveness.
Now if truth be known, there’s no reason to believe that one man was any better than the other. Matthew writes that, at first, both criminals insulted Him (Matthew 27:44). But somewhere, sometime, something changed. And while the first criminal died in his sin, the second died to his sin. Suddenly and unexpectedly, above the noise of the street and the shouting of the crowd, one turned to Jesus and prayed, “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
So what happened? We may never know. Maybe once in his life, he loved God. Maybe one day he was walking near the Temple and he heard Jesus speak. And in that moment, he wondered if He might be a prophet who was sent from God. Or maybe somewhere, sometime, there was a wife or a daughter or a father or a mother who prayed that God would save him.
Whatever the reason, he knew full well that his time on earth had come to an end. No one survived crucifixion. And as he came full face to see what his deeds had done, that he was a thief, a robber and a murderer, right there beside him, was Jesus.
And with deep sorrow and sincere repentance, in his last tormented moments of life, he prayed the simplest prayer that anyone could pray. He said, “Jesus remember me” (Luke 23:42).
Notice he didn’t say, “Could You connect me with whoever is in charge of saving people like me?” nor did he say, “Can You please find someone to save me?” Instead, he said, “Jesus, Yeshua, Savior, remember me.”
Throughout all of His life and ministry, Jesus had said, “He who comes to Me I will not cast out!” (John 6:37). And He said, “Come to Me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest!” (Matthew 11:28).
His accusers condemned Him, saying, “He’s a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19). And they were right! He was their dearest Friend. And now, even as He dies on the cross, there’s yet one more that yearns to come to Him.
And even in His pain and agony, Jesus calls out His most wonderful word of promise: “Truly I say to you, today, you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Why did He say, “Truly”? Because it was so hard to believe--like a father running to embrace his prodigal son, putting a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet, of killing a fattened calf and calling for a celebration. Full reconciliation, full sonship, full riches, full resources. That’s why Jesus said, “Truly.”
It’s been said that the story of Jesus’ death is filled with characters who do the unexpected. Disciples fall asleep. Those who demand His death aren’t the Romans, but the Jews--His own countrymen. They’re the ones who insisted that He be crucified and Barabbas be set free.
And who called Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God? Not Annas or Caiaphas or Herod the king. Instead, it was the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, who nailed the words high above His head: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (John 19:19). And it was a commander of a hundred men who exclaimed: “Truly, this Man was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54).
It is all so ironic. The disciples hid. The religious leaders scoffed. But it was a thief who, in the very last moments of his life, confessed Jesus and was received into everlasting life.
The story is told of a girl who, as she was growing up, was different. She knew it and she hated it. She was born with a cleft palate. When she started school, her classmates constantly teased her, making it clear just how she looked to others--a little girl with a misshapen lip, a crooked nose, lopsided teeth and garbled speech. She couldn’t blow up a balloon without holding her nose, and when she drank from a fountain, the water spilled out of her nose.
When her schoolmates asked, “What happened to your lip?” she said she had fallen as a baby and cut it on a piece of glass. Somehow it seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than to have been born different.
By the age of seven, she was convinced that no one outside of her own family could ever love me, or even like her. Then she entered the second grade, Mrs. Leonard’s class. She was round and pretty, with chubby arms, shiny brown hair and warm dark eyes. Everyone loved her.
Then came the day for the annual “hearing tests.” And since she was barely able to hear anything out of one ear and wasn’t about to reveal yet another problem that would single her out as different, she cheated. She learned to watch other children and raised her hand when they did during group testing.
But the “whisper test” required a different kind of deception--each child would go to the door of the classroom, turn sideways and close one ear with a finger, while the teacher would whisper something from her desk, something the child would repeat. Then the same was done for the other ear.
But she had discovered that no one checked to see how tightly the untested ear was being covered, so she simply pretended to block hers.
As usual, she was last, but all through the testing, she wondered what Mrs. Leonard might say to her. Would she whisper, like teachers had in previous years, “The sky is blue” or “Do you have new shoes?”
When her turn finally came, she turned her bad ear to her, but gently backed her finger out just enough from her good ear so she could hear. And in that moment, she heard seven words that would change her life forever.
Softly, Mrs. Leonard whispered, “I wish you were my little girl.”
Do you ever feel unloved or unwanted? Don’t look to the cross on the right or the left. Look instead to the cross in the center, the one on which our Savior died.
In the words of hymn writer William Cowper: “There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel’s veins. And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains. The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day. And there may I, though vile as he, wash all my sins away.”
As the repentant thief once prayed, dear Father, so we ask You to remember us. Enable us to hear Your words of love and grace that we may live forever with You, for Jesus’ sake. Amen