There was once a handyman who had a dog named Mace. Mace was a great dog except he had one weird habit: he liked to eat grass; not just a little bit, but in quantities that would make a lawnmower blush. And nothing, it seemed, could cure him of it. One day, when the handyman was working on a tractor he lost his wrench in the tall grass. He looked and looked, but it was nowhere to be found. At dark, he gave up for the night and decided to look the next morning. When he awoke, he went outside to see that Mace had eaten the grass and his wrench now lay in plain sight, glinting in the sun. Going out to get his wrench, he called the dog over to him and sang, “A-grazing Mace, how sweet the hound, that saved a wrench for me.”
Today, I don’t want to talk about Grazing Mace, or even Amazing Grace; I want to talk about the ‘outrageous’ Grace on display in the scene that Luke paints.
Think about it; a convicted felon hanging on a cross next to the Lord’s. The hinge on death’s door is squeaking and just before the door slams shut, a prayer of desperation, “Jesus . . . remember . . . me when you come into your Kingdom?” The only thing more outlandish than the request . . . was that it was granted! “Today, you shall be with Me in paradise.”
“Any chance you could put in a good word for me, Jesus?”
“Consider it done.”
And he who in all probability never even said grace, much less did anything to deserve it, received outrageous grace.
I say outrageous because there are many, perhaps some of us, who wish this scene would disappear. For many, the promise of paradise for a common criminal is more than our religious sensibilities will allow. It doesn’t make sense, it’s not right, it’s just not fair! If this guy chose to live life as a thief, then he deserves to pay for it. After all, he never extended grace to others, so why should he receive it now; especially at the end of his life?
For this kind of outrageous grace to begin to make sense, we must come to grips with the biblical fact that God’s grace cannot be earned by human achievement.
This is what Jesus taught on several occasions. In Matthew 20 He tells about a vineyard owner (McDonalds Manager) who hires some people to flip burgers at 6 am for a day’s wage. Then he hires some more at 9 and noon and 3 and finally at 5 just before the whistle blows and its Miller time. But then much to our shock, he pays them all the same wage even those shiftless skunks who hire-on at 5 o’clock.
If we’d been there we would have joined the chorus with the ones hired earlier: “Hey that’s not fair. Those lazy bums got paid the same as us!”
And Jesus would say what he said to those disgruntled workers: “He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’ (Matthew 20:13-15)
Paul agrees with Jesus advising us that no matter how hard we may try to earn it, we fail simply because the cost of our sin is more than we can pay. We are attempting to reach the moon, but we can scarcely get off the ground. We are trying to swim the Atlantic, but can’t get past the first sandbar. We try to scale the Mount Everest of God’s moral standard in order to please God, but we have yet to leave the base camp, much less ascend the slope.
We sometimes forget that the Bible says: “Whoever keeps the whole Law and yet stumbles in one minute point, is guilty of breaking the entire law!” (James 2:10) So, if we have ever sinned; by telling a lie, for example, it’s the same as being guilty of stealing or murder or any other sin. It may not seem fair, but God wants us to know that all humanity stands in the same line-up with this criminal.
The good news is that if Jesus offered the hope of heaven to this one who hung next to Him then He offers the same to us!
Is it any wonder we love to sing, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness?” What a marvelous gospel! What a blessed hope? That you and I can come empty-handed to the cross of Christ and hear that precious word of grace.
This picture of the criminal being promised paradise, despite the fact that obviously, he couldn’t do anything to earn it is God’s outrageous grace in all of its full-blown glory!
Another aspect of outrageous grace painted in this scene is the compassion Jesus has. He never gives up hope on anyone.
Jesus was completely focused upon fulfilling His mission of seeking and saving those who are lost, even as He hangs upon a cross. Anyone else would have been content, perhaps even a little glad, to see this law-breaker receive his due, but not Jesus! This scene reminds us that Jesus will not give up on people who we would tend to give up on.
I cannot help but think of the time that a friend of mine did not give up on his own son. This father was part of my home church’s men’s group that met for breakfast once a month on Saturday mornings. This father’s son was one of the town drunks and was busted a number of times for petty theft. There were many Friday nights when my friend would receive a phone call from the Willard police asking him to come down to the station to get his 35-year-old son and take him home and put him to bed. On this one particular Saturday morning that I will never forget some of us were in the church kitchen flipping pancakes when in walked Herb looking kind of down. One of the guys says to Herb, “Herb, did you have to go down and pick up Greg at the station last night?”
Herb said, “Yes.”
This guy says, “You know if he were my son, I’d wash my hands of him.”
And Herb shot back, “If he were your son, I would too! But he’s not your son, he’s my son! And as long as he’s my son, I’ll never give up on him.”
That’s Jesus, who not only refused to give up on the thief who called upon Him, but who also refuses to give up on any one of us. We may turn a deaf ear toward Him as did the other thief, but this story reminds us that Jesus never gives up hope for us.
Then outrageous grace because of the incredible irony on display in which a convicted thief is not only the first person to enter heaven but that he is the one who shows us the way to follow him into heaven.
That surprises some of us because he does not provide any evidence for faith – he doesn’t even have the chance to demonstrate any faith by the way he lives because he is dying. Consider for a moment the pardoned criminal. He wasn’t baptized. He didn’t go through a confirmation class. He wasn’t a member of any church. He didn’t participate in Holy Communion. What could he do? Nothing!!!
Even so, his last words spoken on earth show us the way.
He addresses first his partner in crime: “Don’t you fear God,” he asks, “even when you are dying? We deserve to die for our evil deeds, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.”
There it is; the prerequisite to faith, an admission of guilt. He has come to that point in his life that many never do. He admits before God that he is a sinner. He doesn’t offer any excuses or make any defense or try to hide. Before God and men he declares, “I did it, I lived my life my way. I’m guilty and deserve punishment.”
Then he turns to Jesus. “Jesus, remember me. I know I have lived my life apart from God’s will for me. I know I have sinned. I know I didn’t do a very good job of loving You with all my heart, soul, strength nor did I love my neighbor as I have loved myself. So please Jesus, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.”
The only thing that he could have done was to throw himself on the Lord’s mercy. That’s exactly what he did! “Jesus remember me.”
“Today you shall be with me in paradise.”
How ironic that this criminal shows us the way, confessing his guilt and casting himself upon the mercy of Christ.
Norman Vincent Peale was a greatly loved preacher at Marblegate Collegiate Church NYC.
One Sunday morning he was preaching a message about how one could only find salvation at the foot of the cross where all stand on level ground. He invited anyone who wished to make a decision of faith for Christ to come to the front of that glorious old sanctuary and kneel to pray. One was a former NYC Judge, who now sat on the State Supreme Court. Peale was surprised that he came forward since this judge had been attending for 10 years and had heard the message of salvation preached many times.
On Monday, the Judge called Peale to set up a lunch appointment for later that week. When the two got together, the Judge asked Peale if he had noticed the man who had knelt down beside him at the altar. Peale said he had noticed, but he had never seen the man before. The Judge told Peale that the man was a former convict, who had been recently released from prison after serving an eight-year sentence, a sentence that he, that very Judge had handed down.
As Peale was marveling at the irony, the Judge said, “What a miracle of grace.”
Peale agreed, “Yes, what a marvelous miracle of grace.”
Then the Judge said, “To whom do you refer?”
And Norman Peale said, “Why to the conversion of that ex-con.”
And the Judge responded, “I wasn’t talking about him. I was thinking of myself.”
Peale says, “I don’t get it.”
The Judge said, “Well, it didn’t take that burglar much to get right with God. Much of his life was a history of crime you didn’t have to say too much to convince him he was a sinner. When he came to understand that Jesus could forgive him, he was ready.
“But look at me Norman. All my life I was taught to be good, to keep my word as my bond, that I was to say my prayers every night and go to church every Sunday. I went to Harvard, got my law degree, was accepted as a member of the Bar, and eventually became a respected Judge. Pastor, nothing but the grace of God could have caused me to admit that I was a sinner on the same level with that con who knelt next to me.”
Isn’t it amazing that a grinning ex-con is walking around in paradise with the King and knows more about grace than a 1,000 theologians? No one else would have given him a prayer. But in the end, that’s all he had. And in the end, that’s all it took.