Midweek Lenten Worship March 29, 2023
“The Thief’s Father Speaks” Luke 23:35-43
Rev. John R. Larson Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
You’ve heard the words from a number of others – Judas, Pilate, Bar Abba – but I’ve asked to be the final one to speak because what happened to me and my son happened last.
There were three men scheduled to die by crucifixion on that Friday. Bar Abba, Gestas and my son – Dismas. I think you know my son simply as “the thief on the right.”
But you already know that Bar Abba never ended up there. Under great pressure from an angry mob he was released from his death and another man, one that I had never met before, named Jesus from Nazareth, took his place.
What was it like for me to see what had become of my son? It was deep pain for me. How did it happen that he became such a criminal? In fact, he become such a vile man that the Romans said he had no use in this world and that his life would be better if it was just ended. And that is what they did.
Do you read your Bible? Do you know the Parable of the Prodigal Son? (See Luke 15:11-32) I see some great similarities between that lost son and my lost son. That son ran away from home and disowned his family. He did one despicable thing after another to his father and to the reputation of his family. Following one sin after another, one bad choice after another, he found himself in a mess – he was penniless, friendless and without anything to eat. That was my boy too.
But that prodigal’s story is different from my son’s account. That prodigal “came to his senses”. Mine never did. He kept on pursing a life of darkness and sin and rebellion until he got caught. My boy never willingly came to any repentance. He was put in prison and then led out to suffer society’s greatest curse – crucifixion.
When I first heard that story of the Prodigal Son I thought about the father in the story. For that boy, and for that father, the story had a wonderful ending. As the son heads home, the father runs to his son and embraces him and kisses him and weeps over him. He gave him new sandals and the family signet ring and covered his rags with a beautiful robe. He throws the biggest feast, the greatest party, and says, “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost but now he is found.”
Everything changed in the life of that boy by the actions of the father and the words that came from that father’s mouth.
Initially, on that cross, my son was no different than all the people in that mob that stood around the cross that Friday morning. They hollered at Jesus, the one with the sign over his head, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. They said, “Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” (Matthew 27:42) And my son, joining with Gestas for the longest time, mocking him, saying, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself, and us.” (Luke 23:39) (See Matthew 27:44, and Mark 15:31-32, as well.)
But then, something changed. I think that that man, Jesus, changed my son. The mob was out of control, was just a few feet from him and they had no sympathy for Jesus. They hated him. They had no pity on him. He could have looked at them and say to them, “Damn you!!” But he didn’t. He forgave them. He prayed for them, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
Maybe it was his words, maybe it was his actions, just like that waiting father had for his son, but in an instant my son was changed. He spoke to Gestas and said, “Don’t you fear God, since we are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” And then my son asked him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (See Luke 23:40-42)
My son, my prodigal son, came to repentance. He finally acknowledged his guilt. He repented. And get this – he had a faith in Jesus, the king of the Jews. He turned from everything that was destroying him and he turned to Jesus. All his life he wanted people to forget what he had become and now he asks Jesus to remember him.
And the words that Jesus spoke to him? “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) It is like that father who ran to his son, kissed him, wept over him, embraced him and then threw the party of parties – “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now is found.”
That day my son went to heaven. He was on a highway to hell and that all changed. My son’s life had been terrible. That day began as awful as it could be. But that day ended in grace. I had hope. He said paradise was coming for my son. It is like your Bible says, “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is the paradise of God.” (Revelation 2:7) Or, how about this word? “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’” (Revelation 21:3-5)
My son, the thief on the right, was more than a thief. He became a child of God. That day the one who was dead was made alive and the one who was lost became found. Jesus took my son to paradise. Amen!!