These simple words of Jesus to the “good thief,” (St. Dismas in the Orthodox Church) are a perfect example of how the relative silence of the Gospels forces people to “fill in the blanks.” In this instance, we have Jesus, evidently, pronouncing salvation to this man who we know nothing about, save that he is being crucified. People have tried to blunt this picture of pure, unadulterated Grace by speculating that this man, were he to have lived, may have warranted eternal life, or perhaps he was being crucified as a political criminal. The tradition has attempted to answer this question in a variety of ways, but they all end up as mere pious speculation, at best, because his request is all we have. “And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
There is a lot that can be (and has been) said about this interaction, but in keeping with my Lenten devotion, I want to highlight the request of the thief, “remember me,” in light of the seeming absence of God. While we can confess by faith that we trust Jesus has, in fact, remembered us, in the “presence of God’s absence,”–the experience of the Hidden God–we are often driven by fear to try and secure our own legacy, validate our own existence. In Cross Shattered Christ, Stanley Hauerwas writes: “We may be Christians, but we fear the habits of our imaginations, and too often the way we live betrays our fear that we are bubbles on a stormy sea. The weather of an aimless universe produced us, and that same weather will kill us. We worry that we will die without a trace because there will be no one to apprehend or remember the trace we were. As a result we live desperate, deadly lives in the hope we will not be forgotten.” (41)
Were we to have faith that Jesus will, in fact, remember us, then the fears of inconsequence, of not leaving a legacy, or making a difference would fade away. Instead, too often we baptize our careers, or families, or ministries or anything we can think of to hold up as something by which to be remembered. For our purposes, this is the allure of the law, which promises that we can establish ourselves and create our own remembrance, that our lives will be monuments to who we were and what we did. As we grow in our appreciation of how unlikely it is that our monuments will be very big (or ever big enough) we’re getting close to an understanding of what Paul meant by “the curse of the Law.”
This is why we need to hear the Gospel every day, because like the “good thief,” we can know that our request is simultaneously a confession and a prayer—remember me!–and His answer was, and is and is to come: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Thanks be to God.