The brief encounter with the two dying men sums up the range of reaction to what was happening to Jesus. Matthew and Mark note only that they are abusive (Matt 27:44; Mk 15:32), but Luke adds a little more.
“One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’
But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’ “(Luke 23: 39-43)
This exchange comes in the context of a range of responses.
In v34 Jesus prays for forgiveness for actions borne out of ignorance. ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’
At the same time, (and within the same verse), some are so indifferent to his situation as “divide up his clothes by casting lots.”
Simultaneously, in v35, “The people stood watching,” suggesting curiosity rather than hostility.
The “rulers” however, actively “sneered at him.” The terms of their mockery are very familiar: “They said, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.’”
The soldiers, whom you may have expected to have been professionally indifferent, as well as stolidly ignorant of the nuances of this event, pick up the note of active hostility: “The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’” Note the switch from Messiah to King, as befits the worst fears of first the Jew and then the Roman.
And into this shouting match -slightly above it- comes the final taunt comes from one of the thieves: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us.” The other man snaps, and rebukes him for his folly, evidencing not only a belief in Jesus’ innocence, but also in his identity.
Some would argue that the thief on the cross does not evidence faith. It’s more like a deathbed conversion, isn’t it, really?
But –au contraire– as a statement of faith, it is remarkably articulate. He addresses his fellow-victim first and then Jesus. He expresses his rejection of the taunt by exclaiming, “Don’t you fear God, . . . since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” It could be said that the injustice of the entire crucifixion is summed up in this short commentary. Other men die justly, but Jesus is dying in agony through a complete miscarriage of justice.
Thus, to mock Jesus is to support the worst kind of injustice. Those who fear God had better realize what it means to taunt him.
Then in words full of faith, the thief turns to Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The criminal anticipates the restoration and resurrection. He asks to be included. His depth of perception stands in contrast to the blindness of those who taunt. This man, despite a life full of sin, comes to Jesus and seeks forgiveness in his last moments. He confesses his guilt and casts himself on Jesus’ mercy and saving power.
Luke could not have painted a clearer portrait of God’s grace.
Jesus’ reply gives the man more than he bargained for in terms of acceptance. The thief hopes that one day in the future he will share in Jesus’ rule. Instead, Jesus promises him paradise from the moment of his death: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Jesus does not explain how this will work, but the assurance he gives to the thief is clear. Ironically, though dying amidst a barrage of mockery, Jesus has saved while on the cross.
The request of the taunts has been granted to one who learned to believe.