The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Beautifully Problematic Feast Day

Who is Jesus talking to when he says: Today you will be with me in paradise?

by Russell Rathbun

Gospel Reading: Luke 23:33-43

For Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010: Year C – Christ the King Sunday

Beautifully Problematic Feast Day

This is a beautifully problematic feast day.

Established, in 1925, between the two Great (sic) Wars — in the face of growing nationalism and secularism — Christ the King Sunday is intended to proclaim the headship, the rulerdom of Jesus over all human institutions, political entities, every economic and cultural ethos (even then kingdoms were kind of on the way out). Of course the text shows us that Jesus the Christ reigns in a very different way, over a different kind of Kingdom than those of this world.

Different Kind of Kingdom

This ten-verse section from Luke’s elaborate passion narrative shows a humiliation, not a coronation. This is not a triumphant sovereign taking his rightful throne, but a convicted criminal being mocked with the word “king.” While the Roman and Jewish leaders responded to Jesus’ challenge of their power with violence and retribution by making a sacrifice of him so as to restore a distorted balance of justice. Jesus’ reign over the Kingdom of God compels him to broker forgiveness for the powers and principalities that have condemned him to torture and death.

Remember Me

The dichotomy between these two kingdoms seems to be played out in the criminals strung up with him. One criminal joined the mocking soldiers, aligning himself with his own executioners and the power that drives the mechanisms of this world.

The second criminal says to Jesus, “Remember me when you come in to your kingdom.” Remember me as if I were someone who has been known. Not as something ill-used and discarded by the system. It is a dehumanizing kingdom versus a humanizing kingdom.

No Longer Enslaved

Jesus responds with the pronouncement, today you will be with me in paradise. One human being nailed to a cross assures another human being nailed to a cross that the kingdom of this world which has enslaved you by its systems will no longer hold you. You will return to the garden, to paradise.

It all seems so absurd. Is Jesus bestowing this salvation only on the one criminal, when he is surrounded by so many criminals, mockers, players, soldiers and sinners who are equally enslaved?

The Hardest Question

Who is Jesus talking to when he says, today you will be with me in paradise?

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Glyn says:

    Jesus is talking to the only person out there who knows what’s actually going on.His disciples are nowhere to be found, the women around Jesus are overwhelmed with grief and the leaders of the religious establishment are preoccupied with yelling smart-arse insults from the foot of the Cross.There’s a thief hanging next to Jesus who has heard his words of forgiveness,looked over to him and seen a king. The only one.It’s a revelation for that man because those words of forgiveness open a gap of love, a way home to God that he can squeeze through – not tomorrow, the day after or at some point in the future, but now.

    Jesus says “Today you will be with me in paradise.” He doesn’t say “You’ll have to hang on for three days until I’ve risen from the dead.” He says “TODAY”.In other words – you may be hanging from that cross and suffering the same agony as me but you’ve understood how to find God.It’s through love and forgiveness. You’ve been reborn and that makes you freer and happier than any of that lot down there.

    It’s in stark contrast to the other man being crucified who keeps going on in Christ’s other ear about getting out of it, like some sort of gaolbreak – “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us.” Come on. DO SOMETHING. This person is still thinking only of himself and it is this that keeps him apart from God. He’s stuck. He’s going nowhere. He doesn’t understand that being reborn in God’s love is the only way to get off that cross and it is forgiving – being forgiven and forgiving others – that makes that sort of resurrection possible.

How do you read?