I had not focused on it before, but the biblical commentaries on this passage are appallingly thin and equally pedantic. Broadly speaking, they divide into two categories: Catholic and Protestant.
The Catholic commentaries reflect on the relationship between the words of Jesus and the creeds that declare that “Jesus descended into hell” or they muse at length about how the language of “Paradise,” which may or may not be a direct reference to heaven and might allow room for a doctrine of Purgatory. Predictably, Protestant commentaries go on at length about how this passage precludes a doctrine of Purgatory. They dwell, instead, on how the passage might suggest we all go immediately to heaven when we die.
Neither concern is really the point of Jesus’ words. If the passage were a painting, most of what is written on the subject would sound like a long, solemn reflection on the nature of the canvas behind the paint and the dating of the frame around the picture.
“Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
Leon Wieseltier, a literary editor, and a sometime observant Jew wrote about his father’s death in March of 1996.[i] Not particularly devoted to the practice of his faith at the time, he felt impelled to follow Jewish tradition and say the Kaddish, or mourner’s prayer, in a synagogue three times a day for eleven months. Based on his experiences, he wrote a memoir that recorded his experiences, struggles, and reflections.
It is a book that haunts as much as it informs the reader, and Wieseltier records both the loneliness that he experiences and the ways in which the ancient Jewish practice of saying the Kaddish both leads him into a candid admission of his grief and, at the same time, comforts him. Days after he begins saying his prayers, Wieseltier discovers that his mother has her own struggles. He writes:
Back in Washington, talking with my mother on the phone about our pilgrimage to Elmont. She says that she visited my father’s grave “with anger, with more and more anger” about what was done to her to family and to her people in Poland. She confesses that she stayed away from cemeteries for years, and was delinquent in her duty to visit the graves of her cousins in Long Island, because she did not wish to unleash the anger. “It’s not that they’re not alive, it’s that they didn’t have a proper end.”[ii]
Proper ends are hard to come by. The words of Jesus to the criminal who appeals to be heard and embraced has nothing to do with the mechanics of the afterlife. They speak, instead, to the broken, incomplete, ragged shards that almost always accompany death. And, instead of offering the simple, obvious things that we can imagine, Jesus speaks to the grief of sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, husbands, lovers, and friends.
Nor are the words of Jesus appropriately unpacked in the words of the commentaries with endless, prosaic conversations about where we go when we die and how soon we get there. The words of Jesus are about a fundamental shift in the fabric of the universe, a return to the intentions of the creator, a vindication of God’s claim to be God. And although Easter is not here yet, it is clear that God’s response to the claims of death will be a resounding, earthshattering “No!” The end is not the end at all.
How have missed this so often? The problem, I think, is that we have been so preoccupied with what happens to ourselves, that we have misunderstood the Christian narrative. For far too long, we have imagined that the Christian story is about us — about how God created us, about how our lives came unraveled, about how we were meant for life and die instead — about how God makes it right again, saves us, and we get to heaven.
There are just enough elements in that story to make it plausible, and the emotional appeal is undeniable. Who wouldn’t love a storyline that speaks to our greatest needs? But it is God who is at the center of Scripture’s redemptive story and in saying “NO” to death’s claims, Jesus vindicates the claims of God to be God. If it were not for this face-off with death, then the end really is the end and God’s claims, never mind the claims that Jesus makes as God, unravel. Whatever fragile case God might make for bringing creation into being, death erases that creation, and – in the case of humankind – erases the image of God, which defines our existence.
The words, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise”, are, then, words of mastery and control. They anticipate the vindication of God’s claim to be God, and that vindication is made evident in the One who hangs on the cross and yet holds sway over the world that the Triune God has created.
To be sure, our well-being is secure. But our healing lies not in what God does for us, but in the fact that God is God. As the Kaddish acclaims:
Be the Name of the Holy One
(He is Blessed!)
Above all blessings
And hymns and praises and consolations
That are uttered in the world
And say all Amen![iii]
“Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
And in that moment
Death loses its power,
And we are freed from hopeless sorrow,
Finding ourselves by your side,
Reassured by your presence,
Comforted by your words,
Led by your love.