39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding* him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah?* Save yourself and us!’ 40But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ 42Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into* your kingdom.’ 43He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
Luke had introduced the two criminals to be crucified with Jesus back in verse 32; now they come back into the picture. One of the criminals begins to join the derision of the religious leaders, saying, “Aren’t you the Messiah? So – why don’t you save yourself? And save us while you’re at it!” But the second criminal rebuked him – he says, “Don’t you fear God?” After all, he is saying, we are under the same sentence – we’re all dying here! “And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” It is a little late to be sarcastic, to ridicule the other guy, when one is on the cross alongside him. The second thief acknowledges that he has been justly condemned, that he deserves the sentence of death – have you ever wondered what awful things the man has done, that even he acknowledges that he deserves to die? But then he turns to Jesus, and he has recognized something more – this is not the end. He is going to die; Jesus is going to die; but somehow, the thief on the cross recognizes something that Jesus’ own disciples do not, it is not the end. The worst thing is not the last thing. He speaks to Jesus, saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He recognizes the Kingdom of God in Jesus – he knows it is coming! And Jesus replies, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The thief on the cross is the greatest example of grace in Luke’s entire narrative. The nearest the man comes to repentance is to admit he deserves his sentence, and asking Jesus to remember him. He has no time to do good deeds, to change, or make amends, for the things he has done. But his heart turns to Jesus, and in his grace, Jesus says, come along with me to Paradise. The man deserved his sentence; he did not deserve grace – but grace is exactly that, love and forgiveness we do not deserve, from God, whose heart is bigger than ours.