Jesus replied, “I promise that today you will be with me in paradise.”
As a person who is not in prison, who is not considered a criminal, these are haunting words. We cannot make any mistake when we hear these words; they are from the mouth of a criminal. To consider Jesus anything less than a criminal is to take the power away from his words, his deeds, and his life.
Jesus says these words in response to a companion criminal hanging alongside who said, “We got what was coming to us, but he didn’t do anything wrong.” We don’t know who he is or what he had done. And he, this criminal, said these words in response to another criminal hanging there who said, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and save us!” Who we also do not know. Perhaps this man was hung for stealing food because his young daughter was starving to death and he could no longer look into her eyes and watch the life slip away. Perhaps the one who said, “he didn’t do anything wrong,” was a rapist and a killer. Thing is, we just don’t know.
What we do know, is all three were criminals.
This is a haunting moment, for we know we live in a society where this could, and does occur. We only need to look at the newspaper or watch the TV news to watch another person walk out of prison because DNA has proven him or her innocent. The number of innocents walking out of prison over the last ten years has only, sadly, confirmed we as a society have hung our own innocents.
This is a haunting moment, because we as a society have built more prisons and criminalized more people than most first world countries. Our sisters and brothers of color: American Indian, Latino, African-American are incarcerated in numbers exceeding their demographics.
Today we build prisons, not just to house the criminal, but to make money. Not that long ago, our society worked to place a new jail in Toppenish. Part of its job was to house criminals, but more so, it was to make money through the housing of criminals from other areas of the state. Jails and prison are and have been built throughout the United States, not by local governments, but by private, for-profit businesses.
When the prison system becomes a for-profit adventure, is it any wonder that we now have lobbyists lobbying for harder, harsher, longer jail sentences?
We can say, more prisons are good for us. We can say our safety is dependent on a well-run, well-oiled prison system. We can say we have to put all those criminals, somewhere. We can say that all criminals have been through the legal system and are rightfully imprisoned.
Or we can imagined three men, three people created by God, hanging on crosses with a crowd around them…and the Lord says to each and every one of them, “I promise that today you will be with me in paradise.”
Just think, the words of a criminal are that which gives salvation.
Haunting words indeed!