Over 10 years ago, John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban,” was sentenced to 20 years in prison for conspiracy to kill Americans, aiding two terrorist groups and for supplying services to the Taliban. His father, Frank Walker was very supportive and stood by his son through it all.
This got me thinking about the father of one of the criminals who was executed just feet away from Jesus on that first Good Friday (see Luke 23:39-43). Like John Walker Lindh, his son was accused of being a traitor. Imagine with me what might have been going through the mind of this faltering father.
“My son was not only indicted for treason, he was convicted and crucified for his crimes. His claim to fame was that he was one of the thieves executed next to Jesus on the Cross. That description is actually quite generous because my son was a cold-blooded terrorist who had murdered many people. He was impossible to control and his pores poured profanity even as a young boy. That’s why I started calling him ‘Mara,’ which means bitterness. He brought nothing but disgrace to my family and me.
Mara had thick skin and was numb to life. He had learned how to take care of himself and take advantage of others. I’m not sure why I showed up to watch the crucifixion parade early that Friday morning. Maybe I wanted him to get what he deserved because bitterness had infected my heart as well. Or, maybe I showed up because I wanted him to know I loved him. Why did his life have to end this way? What did I do wrong?
Mara was nailed to the cross with a brutal precision. He screamed and cursed every time the hammer struck the spikes. He blacked out for a while. In between him and his bandit buddy was the one called Jesus. Unlike the two terrorists, Jesus uttered not a word of complaint.
My bitter boy then unleashed a stream of speech that made me both blush and cry. I moved away because I didn’t want anyone to turn against me. And yet, I wanted to take in everything that was happening. His fatal friend joined him as they both cursed and yelled at Jesus. The soldiers sneered. The people passed by and hurled insults.
Jesus then shouted something in a hoarse whisper that I will never forget. I couldn’t believe what I heard: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” I was stunned. Mara’s mouth fell open and just stared at the middle cross. I could tell something had jarred him. The criminal was now curious. I saw him look up to read the tract posted above Jesus’ head, “This is the king of the Jews.”
Their eyes met. Mara saw something he had never seen before. Those eyes had no anger, no bitterness and yet, they shared his pain. I had never given my son a look of love like that before. Just then, his partner in crime broke the holy silence with a shout of sarcasm, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
I couldn’t believe what my son did next! He turned to his buddy and rebuked him, “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.” My boy had never talked like this before! He not only stood up to his friend, but he in essence told all the religious leaders and soldiers that they were executing an innocent man.
But Mara wasn’t finished. He pushed down on the spike in his feet so he could take a deep breath and then turned toward those loving eyes and blurted out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This was the first time my son had ever expressed any faith. He sounded convinced that Jesus was a king and that He could help him. Jesus answered with a promise mingled with love: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” My son, a sin-soaked criminal, was somehow received by a bloodstained Savior.
This encounter between Jesus and the criminal provides us with some compelling truths.
1. Jesus alone has the authority to save. He is the sinless Son, the Lamb who is Lord, who died as our substitute.
2. No one is beyond His reach. This terrorist had lived an absolutely rotten life and was saved at the very last second. Jesus came to save the lost, the last, and the least.
3. Salvation is not by good works. Being saved has nothing to do with joining a church or even following a set of religious rules. The guy on the cross couldn’t do any of that.
4. It is never too late to turn to Christ. If you have never reached out to Christ for salvation, do it now. While it’s wise to wait, it can be dangerous to delay.
5. Salvation is a choice. You can be like the one thief and experience “Paradise Found,” or you can ignore Christ and suffer “Paradise Lost.”
The story is told of a famous rabbi who was walking with some of his disciples when one of them asked, “Rabbi, when should a man repent?” The rabbi calmly replied, “You should be sure you repent on the last day of your life.” But, protested several of his students, “We can never be sure which day will be the last day of our life.” The famous teacher smiled and said, “The answer to that problem is very simple. Repent now.” The thief on the cross had just one chance and he took it. Could this be your last chance?