If you identify as Christian, tonight’s reading quite possibly made you angry—and I’m warning you now, this sermon might make you furious! For like the older brother in the Prodigal Son, many of us Christians find God’s generosity a bit hard to stomach. What on earth am I talking about? Well, as we just heard, Jesus is crucified between two criminals. One mocks him; the other acknowledges his own sinfulness and asks Jesus to remember him. Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” And what we hear is that one criminal died mocking and implicitly condemned; the other, having acknowledged his sin, died forgiven and was guaranteed a place in heaven. In other words, this second man never even gets to the field, let alone works a full day; and yet he receives the full reward.
So the text has generated a lot of writing and a lot of sermons about Jesus’ scandalous act of forgiveness, since he forgave even the hardened criminal who, at the eleventh hour and while dying an excruciating death, turned to Jesus. Such forgiveness is certainly scandalous. But if we look closely, we might discover that it’s a lot more scandalous than that.
The scandal is in the Greek. In English, we no longer distinguish between singular and plural when it comes to the word ‘you’; in Greek, the words are quite different. When we go back to the Greek text, we find a fascinating plural. For when Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise,” the first ‘you’ is plural. Now, he has been talking with both criminals. And so when he says ‘you’ the first time, he is addressing both of them. In other words, he is saying, “Truly I tell you both, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Of course, if we believe that forgiveness is a transaction—we repent, we ask for mercy, God forgives—then the Greek can’t be right. If we believe we can earn God’s love through our faith or our works, then it doesn’t make sense. And if we pride ourselves on our own holiness, then it is deeply offensive: It suggests that the repentant good guy and the unrepentant bad guy are both welcomed into Paradise. How can this be?
Like everything, it goes back to our understanding of God. We talk about God’s abundant love, but most of us live as if it’s conditional: If we just work hard enough, and do the right thing, and have a strong enough faith, and ask for God’s mercy, then we will be beloved and forgiven. Unlike those people over there, whoever those people are.
But this is not the way it is. God is love; that is God’s nature. God loves the insiders and the outsiders, the good and the bad, the sheep and the goats, unconditionally. And Jesus shows us just how far this love goes. For he loved all the wrong people—all the religious outsiders—and he welcomed them into God’s culture. This loving was not conditional on their good behaviour. His love, and his forgiveness, came first. Just think of Zacchaeus, who was drawn into Jesus’ life: He changed his ways only after Jesus sought him out. Jesus’ attitude of loving continued all the way to the cross. For even at the point of death, he showed nothing but love and forgiveness: to the crowd which demanded his death, to the leaders who scoffed at him, to the soldiers who tortured him, to the criminal who mocked him.
He shows us that love and forgiveness aren’t meted out in small doses to those who earn them; they are poured out lavishly and abundantly upon our neighbours and upon our enemies, upon the just and upon the unjust, upon the peaceful and upon the violent, upon the religious and upon the religious outsiders, and upon ourselves. There is nothing anyone can do to earn them; and there is nothing anyone can do to render themselves unworthy of God’s love and forgiveness. This is the miracle of grace.
God knows the ugliness smuggled in our hearts; God knows the violence of the world; and yet God loves, and loves, and loves. It is because God loves us and everybody else, that God seeks to show us a new way to live: a world in which peace and freedom and gentleness and forgiveness become the norm.
Clearly, this is not the world we live in. And as long as we try to earn God’s love, and prove ourselves righteous, we will be in rivalry with others, and not be living in God’s culture. As long as we judge others, and preach that one criminal goes to heaven and the other goes to hell, as long as we demand that there be insiders and outsiders, we will not be living in God’s culture. But if we begin to recognise that we are already loved and already forgiven, and so is everybody else, then we cannot help but participate joyfully in God’s culture. For we will no longer need to strive; nor will we need to compare. Instead, we will be free to love, just as God loves.
For those of us convinced of our own righteousness, this is the scandal of grace. It is offensive to us that grace is unearned; it is a scandal that grace is doled out in infinitely large measure to friends and enemies alike.
But for the rest of us, those of us who have caught a glimpse of our own selfishness and arrogance and sanctimonious self-righteousness; those of us who recognise our capacity for evil; those of us who have come face to face with our lust for violence and control; those of us who are sickened by our own hypocrisy and fear—this is all good news. For we cannot fix ourselves, nor can we make ourselves worthy of forgiveness; but we can accept God’s forgiveness which is already ours; we can accept God’s love.
And when we do this, when we open ourselves to what is already ours, we will be transformed from the inside out. We will begin to be remade in the image of Jesus, shaped by the Spirit; we will become part of God’s cultural renewal as it unfolds here on earth. This, then, is life in abundance: a life of freely and wholeheartedly participating in God’s life, which is already here, and already among us.
Does such generosity make us angry? Perhaps. But can we enter into it with joy? Again and again, Jesus tells us that God’s kingdom is like a party. We can stand there with our arms crossed tight, mocking the host, criticising the other guests, hating the music, turning down every hot nibble while our tummy rumbles, and announcing to everyone that we don’t drink. Or we can be in the middle of things with our red shoes on, dancing and laughing and singing and talking, and handing out bread, more bread, and pouring wine, more wine, and greeting even the most ghastly relatives with a warm hug.
Take, eat—or turn it down: God’s scandalous party is going on all around you. You can mock it to the death, or you can turn towards it at any time. It’s always already happening. Whether or not you embrace it is the only choice you have. Amen. Ω