Christ on the cross is the image of infinite love where infinity sacrificed Himself for love of His finite creations (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 invites one who thirsts to join Him in paradise (Rev 22:17). The Kingdom of Heaven is His to give… 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 spent their lives in toil and suffering 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 found hope in Jesus. Can our hope be any less than his as we walk with Christ in this valley of tears?
In the complaint of the early laborers above, we can also find a lesson on focus. If we focus on our labors and sufferings, we may be jealous of those who seem to enjoy the blessings of the world. Their lives seem so much easier. Seeing someone who spent his life enjoying all of the sex, drugs, and rock & roll he could handle come to faith in his final moments makes us think he gets to enjoy the best of both worlds. This would also be the lament of the faithful brother in the story of the Prodigal Son. If we share that view, we should carefully examine our consciences. Like the Israelites who grumbled in the desert, we have a tendency to look back on our lives of sin wistfully… when “at least our bellies were full” (Ex 16:3). Do we fast in anticipation of returning to our hedonistic ways? Do we pray quickly so we can get back to the important issues of the day? Is Mass in the way of our football games? If our focus is on loving God and our neighbors, we will be at peace in the relationships we are blessed to share and rejoice in the reconciliation of sinners.
Our Lord taught us how to live. He called us to love as He loves. He gave us beatitudes to understand the fruit of the Spirit. He told us to fast, give alms, and pray to resist temptation. He commissioned His Apostles to preach, teach, and baptize. He gave us the sacraments for living as part of His family. There is a purpose to all of it. Dying may be the easier part—everyone dies. We hope to die in God’s grace and friendship (CCC 1023). Faithful living in hostile lands is harder.
Faith comes by hearing the word of God (Rom 10:17). In order for someone to come to faith, they must first hear the truth. Faith is a free gift of God, but each believer is tasked with sharing that gift. Once convicted in faith we repent and are born again in Baptism. We live our faith and offer ourselves in sacrificial love for God and those He loves. The longer we have to accomplish this, the greater the need for sacrifice.
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 on our record of performance.
God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments (CCC 1257).
The thief on the cross didn’t have time to live… only die. He didn’t have time to be baptized or even hear the words of our Lord, let alone put them into practice. He didn’t make a profession of faith or recite a creed. He didn’t even die as a martyr for the faith—he was condemned for his actual crimes. He simply trusted in Jesus and our Lord welcomed Him.
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.