Mark 10:17-31, Luke 23:39-43, Genesis 2:8-10, Revelation 2:7
Was he there? Was this rich young man in Jerusalem for the Passover the same weekend Jesus ended up on the cross? We don’t know. He could have been. Whether he was or not, his words reveal the struggle in his heart. We heard this young man come to Jesus. He had a simple question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17 NIV). That was the theme for his entire life. “I dropped to my knees before Jesus. I respected him as the Good Teacher. I had done all the hard work. I wasn’t looking for a handout. I... I... I...” This young man certainly loved God. He loved himself more. He saw his great wealth as a reward for loving God so much. It was a gift from God, but a gift that he had turned into the ultimate thing—his god. Finally, he walked away from Jesus. “He went away sad, because he had great wealth” (Mark 10:22 NIV). The kingdom was right there, within his grasp, and he left it because he loved himself and everything he had achieved in his life.
What if he had heard the second word that Jesus spoke to one of the thieves on the cross? Luke set the scene on Good Friday: “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “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.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise”” (Luke 23:39–43 NIV).
This thief had broken all of God’s laws! He hadn’t kept them as the rich young man had. How could this man ask, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42 NIV). That’s exactly what the rich young man had requested—“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus had an answer for the thief, and it’s not the answer the rich young man would have expected.
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43 NIV). Do you recall the word Jesus spoke last week? He addressed his Father and asked that his enemies be forgiven. We might expect his second word to go to his closest friends—his disciples. Not yet. He spoke to a thief. Worse than a thief— the word used for this man is kakourgos. It describes an “evil-working” person, someone who is violent and intent on destruction and evil ways. We are not talking about a guy taking two toothpicks instead of one after a meal at the restaurant on the way out the door. We’re talking about a violent criminal. Do you remember what was said after the terrorists hit the Twin Towers in Manhattan on 9/11? It was stated that in those terrorists “evil has a face.” The survivors of school shootings have described the evil actions of the shooters. Survivors of murder attempts speak of looking into flat, dead eyes and seeing nothing but evil.
That’s the kind of man hanging next to Jesus, and it appeared that Jesus fit right in. Jesus was humiliated, naked, reviled by the world in the most public and degrading of tortures. His powerful ministry, His authoritative sermons, and His miracles had led Him to the very worst of people, the commonest of criminals. Why would he be willing to hang there, let alone speak to the man hanging next to him?
We’re with the rich young man at this point, aren’t we? It is so easy to compare ourselves with that criminal and think, “I’m not so bad. In fact, Lord, I’m pretty good. I come here regularly and spend time respecting and honoring you with my songs and words. I work hard to do the right thing and be a good person—a good Christian! I have worked hard to earn the things I have and enjoy. Isn’t that what they are, Lord? Rewards for being such a good person?”
How far off track can we possibly be? Don’t we realize that whether we are the rich young man or the cruel, evil-working criminal, none of us deserves anything from Jesus? A man named Isaiah described himself and all of us with these words: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way” (Isaiah 53:6 NIV). We all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory; it could have; it would have; it should have been us on that cross next to Jesus. But the word Jesus spoke was for the rich young man, the thief on the cross, and for you and me. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43 NIV).
Most days we feel the guilt, the shame, the pain that makes us equals with that thief. Some days we feel like we’re hanging there next to Jesus. Sometimes when we are hanging in pain and experiencing the darkest, most difficult days, we need to hold fast to the reality that Jesus, God’s Son, is WITH US today!
When you are hanging on the cross of foreclosure: Jesus is with you. When you are hanging on the cross of marriage problems: Jesus is with you. When you are suffering through the terrible twos and potty training your child is about to kill you: Jesus is with you. When your teenager hits puberty, and their voice changes and their hormones kick into high gear, and you wonder who it is that won’t say a word to you but expects you to finance their life: Jesus is with you. Teenagers, when your mom and dad jump in headfirst to a midlife crisis, you are not alone. Even if they drift away from you because they can’t handle the responsibility, you still are not alone. It’s not your fault. When you feel like you’ve been drilled in the heart and home isn’t like it was when you were five years old, please remember: Jesus is with you. Grandma and Grandpa, when you wonder if your kids and grandkids even care and you can’t understand why they don’t pay cash instead of racking up debt: Jesus is with you...and with them.
Today. With me. And don’t forget the most beautiful word of all: “Paradise.”
The word “Paradise” is an interesting word. Paradeisos was first used by an Ancient Greek historian named Xenophon of Athens who wrote during the 4th century B.C. He was a contemporary of and admirer of Socrates, ancient Greece, and the Persian Empire. When Xenophon of Athens used this word: paradeisos...paradise...it referred to the Gardens of the Kings. Paradeisos is a word that has been around for centuries. It was a word that would have been very familiar a first century Jew, be it Jesus or the criminal next to him.
Remember the thief’s request? “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The thief believed Jesus had a kingdom. God had made sure Pilate posted above Jesus’ head: “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Luke 23:38 NIV). Remember Jesus’ answer? “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43 NIV). That criminal mind would have known exactly what He was talking about: the Garden of the King...the Garden...with the King.
The word paradeisos is the same word used in Genesis 2 to describe Eden...the Garden of Eden. “Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.” (Genesis 2:8 NIV). God had planted a garden, Paradise, for Adam and Eve. That garden was ruined by sin, but Jesus promised the criminal that he would join Jesus in paradaisos...his Garden...a new Eden. He promised a perfect Garden the way it was before the fall...back to life with God...with Jesus...with the KING... Back to the Garden of the King. From the very beginning of the Bible to the very end, Jesus is focused on taking us with Him to live in his Paradise, the perfect Garden of the King.
At the end of the Bible in Revelation 2, Jesus said: “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7 NIV). This is the life we are meant for! This is the life that is waiting for us. It doesn’t matter what kind of sin you have done, what kinds of stuff you have been involved with, what kind of past you may have. Because until we trust Jesus, we are all a bunch of rich men and evil criminals with a deep need for forgiveness and a fresh start from God!
What does that fresh start look like? We back in a healed, whole, and right relationship with God. We are are able to live a healed, whole, and right relationship with each other. Thanks to Jesus we are right on target with God. Thanks to Jesus we are able to be right on target in your relationship with your spouse, your family, your boss, your neighbors. That’s why Jesus died on the cross. That’s why he promised Paradise to a criminal. The rich young man missed it and was sad and frustrated. His way to gain eternal life had everything to do with money and doing things the “right way.” Remember what Jesus said about him? “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:24-25 NIV). The thief next to Jesus got it. He trusted Jesus. He asked Jesus to include him in his kingdom. Jesus’ answer to him is the same answer he has for us. Today. With me. Paradise. Amen.