“HOLDING OUT HOPE”

Luke 23: 39-43, “One of the criminals who was hanged railed at Him, saying, ‘Are You not the Christ?’ Save Yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’ And He said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’”
Reading this passage is bittersweet. It is the apex of our Lord’s inexplicable sacrifice for us with the physical pain and emotional agony. It is a reminder of our depravity and shame where sin is concerned. But, for the thief it is repentance. It is acknowledgment of guilt. It is a last-minute turning.
My dad died back in 2005 one day before his 78th birthday. It is no longer painful for me, nor too sad. But during the ensuing days, months and years I have wondered- with no indication either way- where my dad’s soul resides. He became Catholic for my mom early on in their marriage and went to church ever since. And he was a “good” man in the eyes of the world. But I have felt neither confirmatory joy that he is in the Presence of Almighty God, nor grief that he is in torment. I would love to feel him come up from behind me and tap me on the shoulder while I am kneeling in awe of our God in Heaven, either moments after I die or just after experiencing the wonder of the Rapture. But I just don’t know. I have shared the Gospel with him, talked with him after I truly became born-again, and was with him while he slowly gave way to the cancer that ultimately took his life. I was even given the gift of being with him when he passed from this life.
Most people are fearful of death; some because they don’t know where they will go and others because they probably do know, and that is reason to be fearful- much more than they think for “our God is a consuming fire.” Only God, Himself, in His infinite mercy and love knows what He communicates to those in the last moments of earthly life. If we look at the fruit in one’s life we can pretty well know whether they are following the Lord’s ways or not. I feel very compassionately for those of you who have recently faced, or are facing, the impending death of someone you love dearly! It’s a wrenching thing and there’s nothing that can prepare you for it. Is it better for them to go suddenly and unexpectedly so as not to suffer? Or is it better for us to have time to say good-bye over a period of time?
This passage from Luke shows us that it is not just wishful thinking or vain praying to expect someone to repent and receive grace from Jesus even on the cusp of the end of one’s earthly existence. Sometimes this may be the only point in a person’s life where they will be “motivated” to come to terms with the reality of eternal life or death; something they have been mentally avoiding for a lifetime. For those who think mercy given at such a time is unfair– meaning the hardness of one’s heart and rebellion shown all through those years culminates in saving grace, versus another person who has given years or decades of his or her life to loving and serving the Father—I say three things. Firstly, shame on us for not truly having love in our hearts so that the dying one can have the same offer of salvation as we have. Secondly, remember that salvation is not based on works. So what does it matter, in terms of that grace, if it is given and/ or received earlier in life or later—so long as it results in redemption of that person’s eternal soul? And lastly, I point to the parable found in Matthew 20: 1-15 which says, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius[a] a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’”
Almighty God is generous, steadfast in love and rich in mercy! He even tells us that He is not slow in coming back but that He waits for us, not wishing that any of us should perish. Of course it would be better for the sinner and for the kingdom if one was to turn earlier in life and to bear much fruit. But later is better than never. (The Lord also strictly admonishes us to number our days. This means to be awake and aware of the time we have because we don’t know when we will die, and to take advantage of the free gift of salvation while it is still called “today”.) The desperation, loneliness and fear of a man mixed with the tender love and great mercy of Almighty God is a great combination! As the thief on the cross realized—late is not too late! Continue to pray for those you love and for those who are your enemies. Jesus died to give everyone the chance at reconciliation through the Cross. And that is where we- and the thief- find our forgiveness and redemption. Pray that the one you love will hear the comforting words, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise” before they breathe their last. Amen.

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