Seven Last Words: 2. Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise (Luke 23:43)

He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

Jesus from the Cross re-makes the world by word, as in the beginning God makes all things by him, the true Word. In the first saying from the Cross, Jesus shouldered the difficult burden of forgiveness, praying for his tormentors. In the second word of seven, his creative voice draws back from the audience of the jeering crowds to the strange intimacy of a conversation between three dying men.

S. Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna

While the mockery of Jesus by onlookers and/or his fellow-sufferers is reported in all the Gospels, Luke’s version analyzes the action more finely:

One of the criminals [Luke never calls them thieves, interestingly - their crimes are not specified] who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? 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 have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (23:39-43) 

Paradise. The Israelites borrowed the word from their Persian neighbors and one-time overlords; it refers to a walled pleasure-garden, such as ancient near Eastern rulers might have enjoyed, and which most of their subjects could only have imagined or peeked into. The word and idea occurs a few times in the Old Testament; in the Song of Songs for instance the lover calls his beloved “a garden enclosed,” and a “paradise” of pomegranates.

And yes, a paradise is also that sort of place depicted in the Genesis creation story of the first humans, that famous Garden of Eden, a park where “out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen 2:9). To be in Paradise is to hear God walking in the garden in the cool of the evening, to be in the presence of the tree of life, to be naked and not ashamed.

There is no starker contrast with the Golgotha experienced by these crucified men, deprived of all food, drink, and care of any kind, bodies hung as strange fruit on trees of death, and naked not innocently, but stripped and exposed for the sake of shame and degradation.

The one strangely faith-filled criminal asked to be remembered in Jesus’ "kingdom," but Jesus’ response is that he will be with him in Paradise. So Jesus brings these two things, Kingdom and Paradise, together.

The whole of the Gospel has been full of the preaching of a Kingdom by Jesus, the Kingdom of God. He has told parables that explain what it is like, taught his disciples to pray for it to come, embodied in his own actions the kingly authority of justice and love that mark him as true ruler of Israel, a new Davidic king. This Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus was a future hope, an end of all things, the point towards which human history was going, where the justice and love of God would be made real, and which Jesus’ followers hoped – and hope still - his arrival and his mission had inaugurated, an end of suffering, but an end certainly.

So Jesus answers the criminal's desire for the kingdom with a promise of paradise, offering an assurance of God’s love that goes beyond death, and that is available even to the least likely of us. But he does so by drawing together the hope for the end and the remembrance of the beginning, In his body on the cross creating Paradise from Golgotha, a garden out of what sounds as though it was a barren rocky outcrop. So the promise to the criminal and to us is not only one of assurance of God’s love beyond death at the end, but one that in the end the whole creation is renewed, a vision of humankind and the natural order restored to the beauty of that ancient garden.

One man jeered at Jesus and asked, if he were the Messiah, the Davidic king, to get them down from the cross. Another man asks to be remembered in Jesus’ messianic kingdom. We know nothing else about these two and why one speaks so differently from the other, but Jesus' promise to him is that, because he asks for it, he has the chance to go back; to go back, as though to begin again, to shed the burden of his life’s pain and wrongdoing, and to be renewed like the flowers of a garden that come again each year mysteriously.

We know nothing of that man's life, but we do know our own. How many of us do not long to go back, before “that thing” happened, or that decision was made? How many of us do not wish to go back and begin again, to have that fresh start and not to bear the consequences of things done by ourselves and others? There are things each of us wishes had never happened, and thing that we wish had; things done and left undone, our own and others’.  Jesus offer this possibility of renewal but without erasing all that has happened to us, without pretending that all these are not part of our reality, any more than he pretends the criminal’s life is not a reality. The possibility of Paradise comes again and again, not just at the beginning.

In George Herbert’s poem from The Temple called “The Flower”, he muses on the human condition and life before God, considering how our own experiences of spiritual bloom and blight need not be avoided or denied, but educate us about that first and final garden:

These are thy wonders, Lord of love,
To make us see we are but flowers that glide:
Which when we once can finde and prove,
Thou hast a garden for us, where to bide. 

We need not shed or hide our experience to come into this Kingdom that is Paradise. At the center of the garden is the cross, now a tree of life, Jesus borne on it offering us this place “where to bide also,” however late we ask for his Kingdom and to be remembered in it.

Sixth-century poet Venantius Fortunatus also helps us glimpse this divine joining of beginning and end, Golgotha and Paradise, imaging the Cross as Tree of Life:

Faithful Cross, above all other,
one and only noble Tree,
none in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be;
sweet the wood, and sweet the iron,
and thy load, most sweet is he. 

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