A friend recently asked me who is the one person other than Jesus who we know to be in heaven, if we believe the gospel record. There may be other possible answers, but perhaps the clearest is the Penitent thief, or the Thief on the Cross – the one to whom Jesus says ‘today you will be with me in Paradise’.
This story is one of the only obvious moments of light, hope and redemption within the unremitting horrors and darkness of the Good Friday narrative.
The Penitent thief is only featured in one gospel account (Luke’s). In Matthew’s and Mark’s versions both criminals crucified alongside Jesus hurl insults at him. Make of that what you will, but it’s still I think a very important vignette.
It’s surely the most dramatic (and perhaps the only) story of 11th-hour conversion in the pages of Scripture; very much a ‘deathbed’ repentance. Not the ideal way we might want someone to come to faith, perhaps, nor the ideal setting, but one that can give hope and encouragement to pretty much anyone. Few of us can be in a worse place than that crucified thief, yet he is given the cast-iron guarantee of salvation that few others can boast.
Tradition calls him the ‘penitent’ thief, but we do not actually see him repenting in the way that most Christians would understand the term. There is a form of confession but no apology, no ‘sinner’s prayer’. All he does is acknowledge that he has committed a crime and therefore deserves the punishment he’s receiving; and he then asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his Kingdom. That’s all – and it appears to be enough.
It’s wonderful how simple and uncomplicated it all is. The man does not do anything, nor need to do anything, except simply recognise Jesus at least partly for who he is – the true King, of the true Kingdom – and ask Jesus simply to ‘remember’ him. (Not ‘save’ him, but simply keep him in mind, be aware of him, not forget about him.) There’s no begging or bargaining; it’s just a very simple and humble request.
If we take this story seriously, it radically simplifies the requirements of Christianity – at least the entry requirements. We don’t have to be baptised to be saved. We don’t have to go to church, understand difficult theological doctrines, memorise scripture, speak in tongues or go on mission trips to be able to call ourselves Christians. We just need to turn to Jesus. All these others can be good and helpful things, and if we lead long Christian lives we may well end up doing many of them. But they are not required in order for us to be part of the Kingdom, for us to be remembered by Jesus and be with him in Paradise.