Christ on the cross is an image of infinite love where infinity Himself died for love of us (Rom 5:8). God chose to send His only begotten Son, the living image of His invisible self (Col 1:15), to die as a sacrificial offering in atonement for the sins of men (Is 53:10). No one took His life. He laid it down. He laid it down willingly. He laid it down for love (1 John 3:16).
As the image of infinite love, the cross becomes the throne of grace for the King of kings. Our Lord, who is love-personified, shows the depths of His love in His death on the cross. He reigned from the wood. He is holding court in the midst of the jeering and tortures. The good thief reaches out to Christ just as the tax collector beat his breast and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13-14). He asks for mercy—to be included in the Kingdom—and is rewarded for his faith. The other man rebukes Christ and is condemned in his rejection (John 3:36).
Salvation is an act of the will… a free will endowed in us by our Creator. He would violate our free will if He ignored our decisions. He would violate justice if He ignored our sins.
He who created us without our help will not save us without our consent (St Augustine).
Our Lord, as He is slain (Rev 5:6) holds court and divides His sheep from the goats (Matt 25:31). He makes the invitation to one who thirsts to join Him in paradise (Rev 22:17). The Kingdom of Heaven is His… as is the invitation. We know we will receive a reward for the work we have done (Rev 22:12)—but what is the work we are called to do? It is to believe in the Son of God (John 3:16-18, Acts 16:31, Heb 11:6, at al). The devil knows who God is (James 2:19)… so belief requires more than knowledge (James 1:22). Belief requires action.
If we truly believe that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, we will make sure to have breakfast. If we truly believe that we must show up for work today in order to be paid, we will go to work. Just so for the Kingdom—we believe in Christ so we follow His example and do the work in the vineyards of the Kingdom. Those who believe are called to obedience (Peter 1:13-21).
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ So they went off. [And] he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’ When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’ He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? [Or] am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt 20:1-16).
The thief on his cross was not early to the vineyard. He came to believe in the Son of God in his final hour. His reward is the same as the Apostles and martyrs who toiled and suffered for the Kingdom. Why? Our reward in Heaven isn’t payment for our labors, it is an inheritance from our heavenly Father (1 Peter 3-9). What greater honor can we receive than to be part of God’s holy family (1 John 3:1-3)? In a moment’s encounter with Christ, a condemned man became a man of hope. Can our hope be any less than his as we walk in this valley of tears?
My eager expectation and hope is that I shall not be put to shame in any way, but that with all boldness, now as always, Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. And I do not know which I shall choose. I am caught between the two. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, [for] that is far better. Yet that I remain [in] the flesh is more necessary for your benefit. And this I know with confidence, that I shall remain and continue in the service of all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that your boasting in Christ Jesus may abound on account of me when I come to you again (Phil 20-26).
On Pentecost, when asked by the crowd what they must do to be saved, Peter responded that they must repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38-39). We know that baptism is our adoption into the family of God and necessary for salvation… yet the good thief wasn’t baptized. We have been told how to live a life of obedience in the Kingdom (Acts 26:20) but our salvation doesn’t depend on how well we comply. Though baptized, we still sin and need frequent reconciliation. Like the thief, our hope is in the love and mercy of our Lord, not our record of performance.
God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments (CCC 1257).
All of history focuses on Christ on His cross. It is the central event of humanity. The prophets foretold it in advance and we continue to reflect back on this image of infinite love. In this image, we see eternity… our God who loves us to His own death came among us to bring us to His heavenly home—to destroy death itself. He holds His court and shows His infinite mercy in welcoming one whose only desire is to be remembered by Jesus in His Kingdom. The thief wasn’t saved by his years of labor for the Kingdom… he was saved by the love and mercy of God who saw him as a son.
We are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb shed for the justice of God. We rejoice in our invitation to the royal family of Heaven. We work for the Kingdom as an expression of love for Him who first loved us (Gal 5:6). We share in the glory of Heaven as the just God who loves us is merciful to sinners who repent and appeal to Him.