The Eleventh Hour
In Graham Greene’s 1938 novel Brighton Rock, a teenage crime lord named Pinkie threatens, steals, and murders his way to dominance of his town, but can never quite escape his strict Catholic background. Despite his many crimes, he figures he can escape from hell and punishment by confessing at the last possible moment – “between the stirrup and the ground.”
Though most of us aren’t crime bosses, this attitude is still fairly common. Like champion procrastinators, people often add religion to the list of things that they can do at a later date – if not on their deathbeds, then at least after they’ve partied and experimented and then settled down and had a couple of kids. This idea isn’t new, either – in his Confessions, famous Christian thinker Augustine of Hippo humorously writes “Oh Lord, make me pure – but not yet!” Or, the Contemporary Christian music group Falling Up sings in their song “Down Here”: I speak of secrets, I speak of fame, and I’m building constructs so they’ll know my name. And when I am older, and when I am bored, I’ll take up Your promise.
While most Christians will roundly condemn this attitude as not only unhealthy but also deeply dangerous, it is not entirely without precedent. The gospel of Luke includes a moment in the story of the crucifixion that no other gospel writer does: the story of the thief on the cross (Luke 23:32-43). Jesus, as you’ll remember from last week, is not crucified alone – a condemned criminal is on either side of him. Because crucifixion is an excruciatingly long process, the men hanging naked and bleeding have time to talk – and one criminal, angry to the end, uses some of his last moments to jeer at Jesus. “Are you not the Christ?” he yells. “Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39 ESV). The other criminal, however, rebukes him. “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40-41 ESV).
Even as he faces imminent death, this man doesn’t try to escape. He doesn’t complain that life is unfair, or that he’s innocent. “We deserve this,” he says. His words echo the sentiment of Paul in Romans: “The wages of sin is death.” Then he turns to Jesus, and asks him not for temporary rescue, but for salvation. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he says (Luke 23:42 ESV). The man’s statement speaks volumes: while Jesus’ disciples are despairing and weeping at his death, a convicted criminal expresses his simple confidence that Jesus will overcome death.
Jesus turns to look at the man hanging next to him. I like to imagine that, even in the midst of blinding pain, a small smile flits across his face at this one person who still believes in him. “Truly I say to you today,” he says, “you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
To lifelong Christians, this story can seem unfair. It’s easy to feel like the early morning risers from the Parable of the Workers in Matthew 20:1-16, who receive the same day’s wages despite their longer work. How can it be that easy? How can a murderer change his mind at the last minute and get the same reward that Mother Teresa and the apostle John do?
For many others, however, last-minute redemptions are the best kind. There is, perhaps, no more famous contemporary example of this than the final minutes of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (SPOILERS ahead). The young Jedi Luke Skywalker goes to confront his father, Darth Vader, and the evil Emperor Palpatine, who leads the Empire in enslaving and murdering millions. Luke refuses the temptation to embrace his own anger and aggression as a means to power, and the Emperor begins to torture the young man in response. As he listens to his son’s tortured cries, the memory of the good man he once was stirs in Darth Vader, and he makes a galaxy-changing choice to turn against the Emperor, and save both his son and his own soul.
(Content warning – fantasy violence and mild torture, body horror)
Though Darth Vader has destroyed planets, exterminated almost every Jedi in the universe, and murdered Luke’s mentor Obi Wan Kenobi, the film’s ending shows that he ultimately joins other slain heroes in the Jedi afterlife. His final action is his redemption – and in his last moments he sees his son face to face (without his mask!) and experiences love and reconciliation.
Darth Vader and the thief on the cross both find salvation at the eleventh hour – in the last moments of their respective lives. Is their salvation fair? Is it admirable? Who do you think is more representative of fallen humanity – the all-day workers, or the man dying at Jesus’ side? Is this last minute redemption the kind of thing we should build our lives around? What does it tell us about the character of God?
- If we can be saved at the last moment, why devote our lives to God now? Is there a benefit to a life lived in devotion to God if someone who has contributed nothing to the cause can still be saved?
- How does this discussion fit in with the Christian concept of salvation by grace? How would it come across if you instead believed in salvation by works?
- Jesus’ words of assurance to the thief on the cross were originally written in Greek (we don’t know what language he spoke them in, whether Greek or Aramaic). The common way of writing Greek manuscripts in official/professional documents (such as Luke’s gospel/biography) was to save space by writing in all capital letters (uncials) and without spaces between words. ITWOULDHAVELOOKEDSOMETHINGLIKETHISBUTWITHGREEKLETTERS. Otherwise put, the text would have appeared one way, and later scribes and translators would have had to interpret how to mark the punctuation:
- Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. (The most common)
- Truly, I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise. (Another option)
- How does your Bible translation punctuate it? Do these two different translation options give us different theological beliefs about salvation, death, and the afterlife?
- Also keep in mind that according to John 20:17, Jesus had “not yet ascended to the Father.”
- What do you make of the thief on the cross asking his counterpart “Do you not fear God?” Do you think this was also a Jewish man, who had held to some (or all?) of the religious beliefs of his people? If the thief on the cross had been an otherwise religious man who had done some immoral actions, how would that affect our understanding of the story? Would he have been a saved man who got lost and then got saved again? Or would it work a different way? Give reasons for your answer.
- What is a story where a character is saved at the last minute only to die moments later? How did you feel about this character’s death? How did it affect the plot?