While living in the capital city of Guatemala many years ago, Marilyn and I experienced many cultural surprises. Once while visiting a famous cathedral, little boys approached us yelling, “Cheap crosses for sale.” They were small wooden crosses for a small price. Not just in Guatemala, but here also, the abundance of crosses has deadened us to what the cross meant in Jesus’ day. It was an object of complete horror, much the way the electric chair is to us today. It was a very effective instrument of suffering and death.
In Jesus’ day, people knew what the cross was for because they saw crucifixion on a regular basis, as it was common all over the Roman Empire. As we look at the cross Jesus died on, we come to realize that there is no cheap salvation. Jesus suffered immensely before and all through the ordeal of crucifixion. He was not exempt from pain because he was God, but he suffered as a man. Three different groups mocked Jesus while he hung on the cross. The Psalmist David foretold the mockery that would take place a thousand years before it happened: “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads” (Ps 22:6-7).
First, the Jewish leaders sneered at Jesus, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One" (Luke 23:35). The soldiers mocked him and said, "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself" (Luke 23:36-37). This even after Jesus had asked his father to forgive them. Both Jews and Gentiles all took their turns mocking Jesus. These people who hated each other now found they had something in common. Finally, the dying thieves hurled insults at Jesus: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" (Luke 23:39). Mark reveals that both criminals reviled Jesus (Mark 15:32).
Then suddenly, one of the thieves comes to his senses. Out of the chaos and insanity, one person could see clearly who Jesus was. He rebuked his fellow criminal with these words: "Don't you fear God," he said, "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." (Luke 23:40-41).
He had witnessed Jesus’ actions and behavior and a meekness and strength in Jesus he had never seen on this earth. Perhaps he saw Jesus speak to the daughters of Jerusalem with words of grace. He heard Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness for his executioners. He did what is very difficult for many people. He admitted that he was a sinner. This is the right step toward salvation. It’s hard because our society distorts sin, enabling us to believe it’s somebody else’s fault.
This man then dared to ask Jesus to save him, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Luke 23:42). He never offered any reason other than asking for mercy. Jesus, who had been silent to all the mocking, responded immediately, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). That very day he was with Jesus in heaven. How great is that! It does not matter how great the sin or how complicated your life, just ask for mercy. Jesus will respond because he saves sinners.