Luke 23:32-43              “One on the Right, One on the Left”


            When we ponder the crucifixion of Jesus today, the notion that someone could be led to a cross and executed so brutally is almost beyond our comprehension. We thank God that we are no longer living in such times that such minor infractions of the law could be met with such extreme punishment. They were cruel times indeed. How cruel was it? Truly minor infractions could get you death. In some countries today, we can see parallels. An ounce of marijuana can get you the death penalty in some places on our planet.

            I need to point out that these “criminals” that were on either side of Jesus being crucified with him were not what we would even consider criminals today. Yes, some of our bibles will use the term “criminal.” However, other bibles will not. The old King James Version will choose the term “malefactor.” This term, though not so in-use in modern English, fits exactly the Roman understanding of the maleficia or having done something bad. The Greek word here is precisely that κακουργιος “malefactor” and not ποινικος “criminal.” My point being, that like Jesus, these two men on either side of him being crucified did not do anything that we would consider today to be a capital offense.

            This ambiguity of what might be considered criminal or simply wrong actions still plagues our world today. I am amazed at how often in the news cycle we hear the words “but is it actually criminal?” We are left scratching our heads when we hear the words “Well, what this politician did was not right, but it did not rise to the level of a technical crime. We will never get an indictment.” It has gotten to the point now in our politics that we have to wait for a grand jury to decide the ballot.

            The Romans had a unique way of handling this issue—one might call it a dis-ambiguity campaign—just put everybody who falls out of line on a cross. Then, crucify so many people that you can line the road from Jericho to Jerusalem with crosses. To be sure, that was the case in Jesus’ time. In AD 70, over 6,000 crucifixions were recorded by the Romans in Palestine. That would have been four percent of the local population in just that one year!

            The great Roman historian Josephus even wrote of three of his close friends having been crucified. For Christians of the early church to whom Luke was writing this gospel, the continued threat of crucifixion or other forms of persecutions was acute. They were worshiping in hiding with secret passwords to get into church specifically because of this Roman campaign against “malefactors.”


            Since we are on the subject of the early church, I need to point out something that will probably change your understanding of this moment of crucifixion. It was not until the so-called Age of Reason (18th century) that we began to question the divinity of Jesus Christ. You see, throughout most of Christendom down through the centuries everyone accepted that Jesus was as stated “God Incarnate.” Jesus was God. The question for most of history was rather “Was Jesus really human?” With the Age of Reason and the Reformation in full swing, we began to accept more that Jesus was indeed a human but now questioned whether he was God incarnate. Today even non-believers admit that Jesus existed—that he once walked the earth. They will not accept his absolute divinity.

            Let us therefore read this passage from the standpoint that everyone, and I do mean everyone, in this depiction of the crucifixion fully accepted that Jesus was in fact God incarnate. The audience to whom Luke was writing would have read it that way for sure.

            Please see the footnote in the pew bible that says that the criminals were not simply insulting or deriding Jesus. It says that they were “blaspheming” against Jesus. That is the exact word in the original Greek. That is your Greek word for today “blaspheme.” It literally means to insult the Almighty. This implies quite strongly that they knew that Jesus was the Almighty God of the Universe!

            When the malefactors cried out to Jesus to save himself—and by the way bring us two down off our crosses, too—that Jesus was most certainly able to do this thing. All the spectators (maybe hundreds as it was the end of the Passover and many pilgrims would have been there) knew for sure that Jesus was God. The Roman soldiers, the carpenter who made the cross, whoever was there knew that Jesus was God incarnate.

            In this case, they had come to see God Incarnate coming off the Cross in glory. They had heard the news of Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life. They had been witness to the miracles themselves. They had heard Jesus preach of the coming of the kingdom of God. This was going to be the moment when it all happened. God was going to finally break the curse of Roman oppression in this moment. The crowd that was there was not there to watch Jesus die–they wanted to see him float off the Cross and crush the Romans.


            So, we have two malefactors on either side of Jesus. The one on the right accepts fully that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior. The other one on the left does not. Jesus is in the middle of the conversation as it were. Things really have not changed much since that time. We can note one group of people who believe fully in Jesus Christ in the world today. Likewise, we can note another group of people who are still not convinced and will blaspheme the Almighty right up to their dying breath.

            In this scenario is an amazingly important tenet of the faith. It IS our choice to believe. God does not simply force us to have faith in Him. Do you want to be in paradise, in the Kingdom of God with Jesus? Or, are you happy mocking God even up to your terminal breath? You decide.

            Our job as followers of Jesus is simply to offer that choice to the world. I know that it seems strange that some would not want to be in paradise with Jesus, but our astonishment at that choice does not mean we have a way of enforcing ascension! Humans are fallible. We mess up making right decisions all the time.


            Jesus’ response to this state of human affairs is our hope. Jesus cries up to God “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do!” There is some irony in this because if you recall from Luke 5:20-21 Jesus is caught forgiving a man’s sin. This is one of the things that has led him to the Cross. The religious leaders of the time do not feel as if anyone has the power to forgive sins. Jesus does. And, in this moment he commands the forgiveness of all of our sins, for they are our sins that put Jesus on that Cross.

            This last week at our Tuesday afternoon bible study at the Regency Puakea, we had a new person show up. We were so happy to welcome her and to pray with her for the first time. During the time of prayer, she noted to the group: “I am here because I need to forgive my brother, and I do not know how to do that.”

            I responded, “If Jesus can forgive the criminal on his right, and he can forgive all those who are mocking him and have put him to die on the Cross, then I think we can together muster enough forgiveness for your brother out of our faith in the Lord.” She smiled a happy smile!

            It is incredibly difficult thing to forgive. That is why being a follower of Christ is really trying. That is why we call on Jesus to help us to forgive when we pray the Lord’s Prayer.


            I need to point out one more amazing point about Jesus being taunted to save himself: If Jesus could not save himself, what makes you think you can save yourself in this world? The malefactor on the right also could not save himself from the Cross, but by accepting Jesus as the Messiah, he gains paradise. The man on his left died a horrid death with nothing but guile and hatred in his heart. This is your choice: Are you the one on the right or the one on the left?

            Our salvation starts in that moment when you decide. Now, I know that it looks like this man on the right waited too long before making that choice. I really do not want to discuss all the issues with deathbed confessions and all, but Jesus in this instant accepts the right man’s confession and reconciles him back to God with heavenly grace. The right man knows that he is not deserving of paradise, but he is accepting the grace of the lord through the forgiveness being offered by Jesus.


            Let us be on the right side of Jesus today.