“Crime and Punishment”
Sermon on Luke 23:39-43
Series on The Seven Last Words from the Cross
The Second Word
March 4, 2007
The Rev. J. Curtis Goforth, O.S.L.
Have you ever come across an article in the newspaper about a really dumb criminal somewhere? I read a story about a guy who was trying to pass off counterfeit $16 bills at a bank of all places. Or the guy that tried to break into an ATM machine who pried it away from the wall only to set off a really noisy alarm. It was only a few minutes before the police arrived on the scene, and the criminal had nowhere to run so he hid himself behind the machine. When the police saw that nobody was around they simply put the ATM back in its rightful place unaware that the guy who had tried to rob it was trapped behind it.
But my favorite story about a dumb criminal was one that happened a couple years ago when gas had gotten up to around $3 a gallon. The man saw an RV parked not too far away and although he didn’t know all that much about RV’s he knew enough to know that it would be a good idea to steal some gas from the huge gas tank those things have. So, in the middle of the night, the man got some plastic tubing and some containers and he was ready to go and siphon the gas out of this RV. When the police got there, the criminal was vomiting all over the place and he was lying on the ground as the owner of the RV just laughed hysterically. You see, the thief didn’t know much about RV’s and when he began siphoning the contents out of the tank, he failed to realize that RV’s have several different tanks full of several different substances. The dumb criminal had siphoned from the sewage tank. The owner of the RV said that he couldn’t press charges against a man who was so kind as to actually empty his sewage tank!
Dumb criminals make me laugh, but it’s not a good kind of laughter though. It makes me sad to think that there are people who would defraud others or harm others just because they can. It seems that as long as there are laws that there will be people who break those laws. Law breakers are everywhere. It is not just limited to the poor. I mean even a cake baking, topiary designing rich lady wound up in jail for a little while. And criminals are not just a modern invention. If you search through some of the earliest documents of civilizations, they contain legal codes and punishments for those who break the laws.
Jesus was executed as a criminal on a Roman cross. He wasn’t alone though. Just as he had always kept company with the outcasts and the sinners in life, even in death he found himself in the same company of those whom society had deemed unworthy to even breathe much longer. There were two criminals who were hanging there on their own crosses on either side of Jesus that same day. And one of them even joined in the taunts directed at Jesus. He commanded Jesus to save himself and them if he was who he claimed to be. But the other stood up for Jesus and rebuked the dumb criminal, asking Jesus to simply remember him when he came into his kingdom. And remember him Jesus does. He assures him of his place in paradise that very day.
If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t have a lot of patience with criminals. My cousin is a criminal. He is barely eighteen years old and he has already been in jail twice. He can’t pass a drug test and he can’t keep from violating his probation. His grandmother has raised him and she does everything that she can to help him, but he won’t stop being a dumb criminal. It’s easier for him to sell drugs than it is to work or to go back to school for his GED. I got to talk with him for about fifteen minutes on Thanksgiving night at my grandmother’s house. We sat out in his truck and I asked him about his life. I wanted to say something that would bring him to his senses. But some people will hurl insults at you even when you offer them something better. Some people will put all the blame on somebody else and not fess up to their own misdeeds.
I worry about what will happen to my cousin and I worry about what might happen to others that are around him. It infuriates me that he won’t change. It angers me that he refuses to acknowledge that he is responsible for his own actions. And it hurts me because deep down I know that every person is suffering from the same condition.
The sad reality is that you and I are a bunch of dumb criminals. Some of us may have advanced degrees and specialized training, but we are all about as dumb as a bucket of hammers when it comes to following Jesus. There are even several law enforcement officers in this church, but we are all a bunch of law breakers when it comes to following God’s law. We may not go out on the street and sell drugs, we might not pass around counterfeit bills, we might not even try to siphon gas or other liquids from the tanks of someone else’s RV; but we break God’s law all the time and we sin against God and against others day in and day out.
We all deserve to be the ones that were hanging up there next to Jesus. Lots of time may have passed since that day and we may be vastly different than those criminals that died next to Jesus, but we are not that different from them. The way I read this story of the second last words of Jesus from the cross has to do with communication. The smart criminal talks with Jesus. He listens to him and he asks Jesus questions. But the dumb criminal talks at Jesus and demands things from him. Too many times we fail to talk with Jesus. It’s not that it’s wrong to ask Jesus to remember us or to help us out when we are in dire straits. But we are not to command Jesus, it is he who commands us.
I don’t know a lot about RV’s and I don’t know a lot about being a criminal. But I know enough to know that new life is not something we can steal, and I know for a fact that it is even offered to a bunch of dumb criminals like us. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Amen.