Luke 23:35-43 is one of the most powerful scenes in his gospel. All four gospels speak of Jesus being crucified with two other Jews. But only Luke provides us with the story of the Good Thief. The passage is noteworthy for its desperation, its intimacy, and its view of salvation.
The desperation of the good thief is obvious. He, like Jesus, is literally in his last minutes of life. He probably thinks of past opportunities which, if taken, might have changed his destiny and avoided this brutal execution. But now his death is certain, and his hope is gone. What choices can he make as life slips away? He only sees one possibility. It is a long shot, but he takes it. He asks the crucified man next to him to bless him: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The request is stunning in its intimacy. This is the only place in the gospels where Jesus is addressed by his personal name without any additional title. Only desperation and a wild courage could explain such a daring approach.
Jesus’ response is even more astounding. With a graciousness beyond any expectation, he promises the man union with him in Paradise. Luke, from the beginning of his gospel, continually asserts God’s power to save the lowly and forgotten. You can hear it clearly in Mary’s Magnificat. You can see it in the surprised faces of the prodigal son and the man rescued by a Samaritan. You can detect it the joy of Lazarus as he rests in Abraham’s bosom and in the wonder of the slave of the high priest whose severed ear has been healed by the man he came to arrest. But no one could have been more unprepared than this crucified criminal to discover that he—the most unlikely of all candidates—would be the first to share eternal union with Christ.
In this passage Luke encapsulates his view of salvation. It does not depend on our goodness, only on God’s gracious love. In fact, God comes first to those who are desperate and lost. Therefore, it is never too late. Whatever we have done, whatever doubt, discouragement, or pain we must face, hope is close at hand. We must learn what the good thief discovered. Our salvation is near.
He is hanging on the cross next to us.