“Our very life depends on continuous acts of beginning. But these beginnings are out of our hands; they decide themselves.
Beginning precedes us, creates us. There is nothing to fear in the act of beginning.
More often than not it knows the journey ahead better than we ever could."
John O’Donohue

25 Mar 2016: Seven Last Words #2 (Mills Grove Christian Church, Oakland CA)

We take this word of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 23:

The people stood watching and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” There was a written notice above him, which read: “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal 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.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.

These seven last words are the final gestures of Jesus’ mortal ministry. And we read and reflect on them today not only because they take us down the lonely path of his death and resurrection, but also because they continue to teach us who Jesus was, and how God is urging us, through him, to be. As we tell and retell this story, we find scattered seeds of a way of being that does not cower at suffering and violence. It is a way of being in the utterly broken world that breathes life and possibility at every turn.

Jesus says:
I tell you the truth today, you will be with me in paradise.

Jesus also says:
I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.

Much has been made of the vagaries of translation in our reading of the life and words of Jesus. The beauty of inheriting scripture not in our native tongue is that, as we appropriate it, its truth opens up in many directions. The comma is essential to meaning the English language, though it is unapparent in Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew alike. With that single comma, we can place in Jesus’ mouth two very different truths: On this day, I am telling you the truth. You will (at some time) be with me in paradise. And, equally likely, equally true in English: I tell you truth. Today, on this day, you will be with me in paradise. One word tells us we await the fullness of God. The other tells us that it is with us, among us, already, before and at and after the point of death.

We step into worship today in the wake of Maundy Thursday, a day that celebrates the fellowship of Jesus and the disciples. On that day, we reenact the rituals of service, community, and companionship that Jesus modeled throughout his ministry. We mark them with the simple, earthy connections of meals and foot washing. I am reminded this particular Good Friday of one of the early gestures of Pope Francis’ service: washing the feet of the incarcerated and abandoned. It was, I would like to suggest, not a performance of simple humility, not primarily an ideological role reversal. It was instead a statement of an existing truth and an act of abiding hope, a living prayer to the spirit of life that remains no matter how distorted and fractured our realities become. It is a refusal of dead analogues. We are all the criminal, we are all the priest. And the world turns upside down in this simple gesture, not because power is given away, but because it so easily dissolves in its own meaninglessness with basic acts of kindness.

One reading of Jesus’ word in this moment so near his own death is that he is offering a kind of pardon, perhaps in response to the unnamed man’s recognition of Jesus’ closeness to God and his response of confession, accepting blame for his actions. A gesture of forgiveness would of course not be out of character for Jesus, and it is certainly possible that this one reason Jesus invokes the image of paradise. This reading takes Jesus’ statement about “today” as a foretelling of their shared death, and his promise that faith in the face of death will open up into a life beyond. But a prediction of death here would be superfluous; the whole scene is steeped in the fact of death, and it does not require a word from Jesus to proclaim it. It is as clear as the pronouncement of guilt written above each prisoner on the many crosses gathered in that place.

But Jesus’ teaching I think is deeper than this. He is pointing first and foremost to the brotherhood that exists among the imprisoned—both those who know themselves to be such and those who don’t. He is acknowledging the pain and loss that they all share, regardless of how the world has labeled their guilt or innocence. “Loss,” Judith Butler writes, “has made a tenuous ‘we’ of us all. And if we have lost, then it follows that we have had, that we have desired and been desired, and we have loved and been loved.”

Jesus was engaged, above all, in a ministry of imagination—making space for those most broken by the lie of the disposability of life to reimagine wholeness. The fact that the man, damned by the empire, has named his own life, called out his own failings, can then be seen in a new light: Jesus is honoring the truth of his life as a life of loss rather than a life of wrongdoing, and he is stating the truth of restoration that only love makes possible.

This is ultimately what we do today as we ritualize the contradictions of “Good” Friday with the bright light of Easter so near. A bit too much, I think, is made of the promise of afterlife in this scripture. Surely that is a part of the teaching, complicated by the ancient Mediterranean context where concepts of eternal reward and punishment were far more varied than we generally imagine.

But the greater part of Jesus’ word of comfort is the affirmation of suffering and a companion promise of unbreakable brotherhood. What he sees in the criminal is a willingness to accept life as it is, which is what leaves us open to the promises of intimacy. The theologian Dorothee Soelle, in her meditation on suffering, reflects on the words of Simone Weil: ‘Not to accept an event which happens in the world is to wish that the world did not exist.’ Soelle responds, “Suffering can bring us to the point of wishing that the world did not exist, of believing that non-being is better than being. It can make us despair and destroy our capacity for affirmation. We then cease loving God. …the affirmation of suffering is part of the great yes to life as a whole.” It is this “yes” that resounds in Jesus’ words always, even and perhaps especially here at the point of death. He sees that affirmation in his brother, and he speaks back to it, affirms its ground in the love of God.

These condemned men would become Jesus' last living community--a metonym, we might say, for the millions of men and women who at this moment are being consumed by the insatiable hunger of our system of mass incarceration. What Jesus offers his brother is not verbal atonement, but a rejection of hopelessness at the very edge of death. He does not offer forgiveness--which would require him to hold his own blamelessness over and above the other prisoners. What he offers is a statement of present fact. “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” 

The doors of paradise are open today. And though we may be barefoot and wounded, we step into that blessing together.