Commentary on Luke 23:33-43
On September 30, 2015, the state of Georgia executed Kelly Gissendaner, who plotted the 1997 murder of her husband, Douglas.
While in prison Kelly converted to Christianity and demonstrated that hers was a genuine conversion. Notably, she earned a theology certificate from Emory University and ministered to other inmates with a message of God’s love that gave them hope when they desperately needed it (a few of them had attempted suicide). As her execution date approached, a group of former inmates transformed by Kelly’s prison ministry joined many others who pleaded the state for clemency, including correctional officers, Pope Francis, and supporters using hashtag #kellyonmymind, and even Kelly’s adult children who had lost their father because of Kelly’s actions. All appeals that Kelly’s sentence be commuted to life in prison were denied, another reminder that criminal justice in the U.S. prioritizes vengeance over rehabilitation.1
Luke 23:33-43 challenges us to expand our notions of who deserves mercy. The passage is structured around three instances of mockery leveled against Jesus (verses 35, 36, 39). Stating only that Jesus was crucified alongside two criminals (verse 33), Luke’s narration does not dwell on the mechanics of crucifixion. Luke’s audience would have been aware of its horrific details. Nevertheless, the mockeries communicate how dismal things have become for Jesus. These taunts get closer and closer to him, giving the reader a sense that the forces against Jesus are closing in on him. The Jewish leaders are close enough for Jesus to hear them; the soldiers, who had already taken his garments (verse 34b), come up to Jesus as they mock him; and the final act of derision comes from someone right next to Jesus.
Each of these taunts challenges Jesus to save himself as a demonstration of his identity. In their calls for Jesus to demonstrate his power to save, the leaders, the soldiers, and the criminal address him with titles that from their perspective add to the ridicule but represent valid affirmations of Jesus’ identity for Luke and his readers (“Messiah of God,” Luke 23:35, 39; “chosen one,” verse 35 “King of the Jews,” verses 37, 38). They ironically pronounce Christian truths about Jesus without realizing it, unable to see that Jesus’ identity as “Messiah,” “chosen one,” and “King” is inextricably linked to his crucifixion. The salvation Jesus offers takes place through the cross, not apart from it.
The taunting Jesus receives from the criminal offends the other criminal crucified with Jesus. This second criminal accepts that they are “condemned justly” and deserve their punishment, whereas Jesus “has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41). How he knows that Jesus is innocent is not indicated, but his statement continues Luke’s emphasis on Jesus’ innocence (23:4, 14-15, 22, 47). Nor is it stated what the criminals had done.
Instead, Luke focuses on how these criminals position themselves before Jesus while in their guilty state. The first criminal joins the others in spurning Jesus and demands that Jesus save them all from being crucified (Luke 23:39). Luke presents this criminal’s actions as a serious affront against Jesus, using blasphemeo to narrate his act of deriding Jesus (literally he “kept blaspheming” Jesus). The second criminal also asks something of Jesus, but his earnest request contrasts the first criminal’s selfish, impertinent demand. While others in the scene use titles to mock Jesus, showing they do not really believe Jesus to be Messiah and King, this second criminal accepts in utter sincerity the inscription’s identification of Jesus as “King” (verse 38), asking that he be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom (verse 42; see also Psalm 106:4-5). He speaks to Jesus in a startlingly personal and intimate fashion, addressing Jesus directly by name and not with a sarcastic use of a title.
In response, Jesus grants him salvation. Jesus’ words in Luke 23:43 begin with an “Amen” saying (literally “Amen to you I say”) that introduces his “today” pronouncement with a solemn assertiveness. Placed for emphasis immediately after the “Amen” saying is the word “today” (semeron), which appears at key points in Luke’s Gospel to describe the arrival of Jesus’ salvation in the world (2:11; 4:21; 19:9). Its last occurrence in Luke occurs here, at the cross from which Jesus’ salvation becomes a reality to this criminal and a possibility to any of “the lost” (see also 19:10). Luke adopts the term “paradise” (paradeisos) from the Jewish literature of this period; it signifies the realm of eternal bliss in God’s presence where righteous persons go after death.2 Jesus finds this criminal worthy of being in God’s presence with all the righteous (including Jesus himself), despite the fact that by the Roman state and by his own admission he had been “justly” considered worthy of condemnation.
Granted he did not have as much time, but the second criminal did less than Kelly Gissendaner to receive such abundant mercy from Jesus. He acknowledged his own guilt and Jesus’ innocence and made a sincere request that Jesus remember him, but this does not necessarily represent an obvious plea for forgiveness or a full-scale repentance on his part.3 Regardless, Jesus uses his power as “King” to dispense mercy in a boundlessly gracious fashion that far exceeds what is asked of him. As the Church Father Ambrose put it, “More abundant is the favor shown than the request made.”4
Luke’s crucifixion scene shows the wide scope of Jesus’ offer of salvation. Whatever evil or crime one has done is no barrier for acceptance into Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus offers direct access to salvation to persons worthy of the most extreme punishment for their sins. Even those carrying out the crucifixion and the mockeries can be forgiven by Jesus (Luke 23:34a).5 And though he responds to the second criminal’s request, Jesus ignores the calls to save himself, because it is through the cross that he comes into his kingdom, where those deemed unrighteous may share in the salvation of the righteous. His reign is not a death-dealing system intent on punishment, but a “paradise” that “today” extends even to those whom we do not think deserve it.
1 Information about Kelly Gissendaner can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelly_Gissendaner, http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/29/us/georgia-execution-kelly-gissendaner/, http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/opinion/columns/story/2015/mar/15/sisters-who-struggle-kelly-gissendaner/293356/, and http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steven-w-hawkins/kelly-gissendaner-should_b_8197754.html (all sites accessed May 23, 2016).
2 See Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 2:1010-1012.
3 See Brown, Death, 2:1004-1005.
4 Quoted in Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (X–XXIV), Anchor Bible 28A (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 1508.
5 Luke 23:34a may or may not be original to the Gospel, as it is missing in important manuscripts. For a thorough discussion that argues in favor of its Lucan authenticity, see Brown, Death, 2:971-981.