“One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”(Luke 23:39-43)
Criminals, the reality of this is that these men were more than likely “freedom fighters”. Romans called them criminals. And as with most revolutionary groups, they engaged in criminal activity in order to fund their revolution.
So the one revolutionary rails at him. “Are you not the Christ?” Then get us down from here. The Jews constantly thought of the messiah in terms of a revolutionary. Even here on the cross this man won’t give up that notion. It’s not so much a mock as an expression of anger and disappointment. The revolution hasn’t been successful, Jesus has failed his imagination.
This is one of the things that I don’t like about millennialism. So much of it is based on the Jewish myth that the messiah will be a political figure, a supreme king ushering in a utopia. So much of it requires us to try help usher in that utopia, often through “righteous laws.” History is full of these attempts from Thomas Muentzner to Calvin’s Geneva, to the puritan ethic that still pervades much of American culture, not to mention 18 and 19th and 20th century Methodism that gave us the prohibition. In every instance the result is the same, trying to usher in Utopia results in hell.
In any case, the other “criminal” gets it. He understands that he has deserved this ending. He lived by the sword, and now he dies by it. He understands that Jesus has not done anything deserving of death. He finally starts to see the true nature of the Messiah. He understands that even as Jesus dies, this man is the messiah. He is the messiah, first and foremost in death. He understands that Jesus dying, is precisely that which will usher in his kingdom. That because of his death he will be brought into his kingdom. And there he asks for forgiveness, throws his lot in with mercy. “Lord remember me in your kingdom.” And Jesus lets him know he will be with him in paradise. That is salvation, salvation as only God can give, salvation that is so much more than a utopian dream of earthly glory.