Some of the most powerful and moving scenes in the New Testament are when Jesus is encountering people who are overcome with suffering and the weight of their sins. Whether it be healing the son of a Roman official (someone who was a part of the Empire that oppressed and killed the Jewish people), or preventing an adulteress from being stoned by fellow sinners, Jesus is right there in the mess with them. He seems to always enter into people’s lives when they are in their most vulnerable state, which allows an abundance of grace and mercy.
This remains true in one of the most hopeful examples of grace that Jesus demonstrates in the Gospels (the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). In Luke chapter 23, there are a few verses dedicated to two criminals who are sentenced to die on their own crosses just as Jesus is dying on his. While one of the criminals begins to actually mock Jesus, the second criminal (also known as the penitent thief) takes a different approach. The penitent thief calls out the other criminal and reminds him that they both are guilty (and deserve their punishment) while Jesus is innocent. He then goes on to say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”(Luke 23:42, New American Bible Revised Edition), to which Jesus responds “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43, New American Bible Revised Edition).
A wise woman once told me that “Grace is the opposite of karma. Karma is getting what you deserve. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve.” In this deeply profound encounter, Jesus doesn’t tell the criminal that whatever crime he committed didn’t matter, in fact he does something even more meaningful. He saw where the thief was at; he saw that in that moment before death this man knew Jesus, knew Jesus was innocent and gave him the promise of heaven. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, who had his fair share of struggling with his own humanity, writes in “No Man is an Island,” “The dying thief had, perhaps, disobeyed the will of God in many things: but in the most important event of his life he listened and obeyed.”
Who could have known that of all the people watching Jesus being crucified one of the few assured of eternal life was a guilty man dying the same death next to him? This is Grace, this is Jesus. It’s recognizing our own struggles, issues, sins (etc.) and still reaching out to Jesus because He didn’t say no to the thief. He doesn’t say no to us as long as we keep searching for Him. Jesus understood that we are sinners but that didn’t stop Him from dying on the Cross or encountering humanity thousands of years ago and it doesn’t stop Him from loving or encountering us now. So take heart!