That oh so confusing attribute of God. In the bible (specifically Psalm 116:5) we are told God is both just and merciful and I believe that. But sometimes that idea still confuses me. How can a God that is perfectly just, who can and does punish people rightly for their sin, also be perfectly merciful and 'relenting in punishment?' (Joel 2:13)
Well, these words of Jesus gives us all an opportunity to see how. In the gospel passage surrounding this verse, we are introduced to the two criminals crucified next to Jesus:
Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, 'Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.' The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, 'Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.' Then he said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' He replied to him, 'Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.' Luke 23:39-43
The first criminal or 'unrepentant thief' seemingly felt no remorse for his crimes; even the one that led him to be crucified. He rejects Jesus as God, but still expects God to save Him. The other criminal, 'good thief,' on the other hand, acknowledges His own sinfulness and reaches out to Jesus, inviting Christ into his mess. He does so by asking Jesus to simply remember him, when He comes into His glory in Heaven. And in return, Christ offers His abundant mercy. He not only forgives the man's sins, but invites the 'good thief' to enter into the glory of heaven with Him.
How crazy is that? Now that is mercy!
Mercy means compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm, according to the dictionary. That's what the good thief understood that the first did not.
To accept God's mercy and forgiveness, we first have to accept that God is God. We have sinned and He has the right to punish us for having turned away from Him by our thoughts, words, and actions. Our sins are real and deserve punishment. To do these two things, means to repent.
The first thief refused to accept both of these realities. But when we are humble enough to acknowledge those two truths, like the good thief God comes running into our lives not only with His forgiveness but also an invitation to share in His glory! (Sounds a lot like Confession . . . just saying).
And as we continue to journey through Holy Week, meditating as a Church on the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, I challenge you to dive more deeply into the mercy Jesus offers all of us this week.
For some of you, that might mean getting yourself to confession, even though you've been putting it off all Lent, or actually praying with this gospel for ten or twenty minutes today. It might even mean showing mercy to someone who has legitimately wronged you. Whether it is a friend who talked behind your back, or didn't call you or invite you when they said they would, or even a parent who has let you down by not being supportive about something you love. Instead of rubbing what they did in their face, pray for them right now.
By doing any one of these things, you are inviting that person (yourself or the person who has wronged you) into the mercy Christ offered the 'good thief' and to every person who has ever lived or will ever live, just before He died for our sins.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the ultimate example of mercy.