The third evangelist. In the last four days we have heard from Matthew, Mark, and now Luke. Luke is the only one who records the visit to Herod. The others have him before Pilate – the Roman Governor. Only Luke mentions Herod – the descendant of Esau. Jacob cheated him out of his birthright. Now, Herod will sit in judgment over the son of Israel. And yet, Herod comes to no firm conclusion. Like his ancestor Esau, he isn’t really interested in the things of God. He cares only for the things of this world. He wants to see the show. Can Jesus do a miracle before him.
A few years ago, scientists did a study – people were in the hospital for various illnesses. The control group received regular medicine. But others received medical care, and the prayers of a religious order. No difference was found in the outcomes. The conclusion the world drew was the prayer was probably not effective. The conclusion that should be drawn was “Thou shalt not put the Lord the God to the test.” Herod tests Jesus. Jesus disappoints. No miracle. Nothing extraordinary to say. Unlike his cousin John the Baptist who denounced Herod’s incestuous marriage, Jesus says nothing. No word of judgment. No prophecy. Herod left the whole thing rather disappointed. So, he just sends him back to Pilate.
Jesus is not in this to entertain or amuse. Not then, not now. The Gospel is not a word of ease, or popularity, or physical pleasure, or wealth. It is of self-denial. It is of cross. It is of death. Jesus enters into the holy place on our behalf. He is the sacrifice for sin. His blood is sprinkled on the altar so that God would not count your sins against you.
Even as he is crucified, Jesus seeks forgiveness for his crucifiers. “Father forgive them” He prays. And there is darkness over the whole land. The hour of darkness has come. Satan has entered Judas, the leaders of the people have their way. Herod the adulterer stands in judgment over God. Pilate doesn’t have the constitution to stand up to the people. Even the criminals revile him and mock him. And then the darkness descends. It was God who called the light from darkness in the first place. Now, the darkness rules. Because Jesus, the Son of God, is near to death. The creation is being reborn – but at a terrible cost.
And yet, in the midst of the reviling, there is one spot of light. One of the criminals repents. He even rebukes the other – we are here justly, but this man has done nothing wrong. And then he pleads for mercy from Jesus. He knows there is no mercy from Rome. That time is past. But the time is past for seeking after the things of this world. He recognizes that there is more than this world. And that Jesus is the one to go to in order to get it.
His request – remember me when you come into your kingdom – shows that he understands that Jesus is not of this world. There will be no earthly kingdom for Jesus. He is also being put to death. He is mocked by the leaders of the Jews and the Romans. All the earthly authorities make light of him, and set him at naught. There is no kingdom to be had in this world. There is only cross. And yet, the criminal, at the end, recognizes that more even than the disciples. His request assumes divinity, it assumes resurrection, it assumes everything that the church confesses about Christ.
And Jesus response is the only response that God can give, in light of Jesus sacrifice. Your sins are forgiven. “This day you will be with me in paradise.”
We might say, “Even on the cross, Jesus is about forgiving sins.” But the reality is “Especially on the cross, Jesus is about forgiving sins.” That’s why Jesus came. To forgive sins. The man on the cross wasn’t just caught up in events. He was guilty. He knew it. He even admits he deserves the death sentence. He knew what he had done. And yet, he repents of his sin, and seeks forgiveness in the one place it can be found. In Jesus most holy death.
And that is what Jesus gives him. It is what Jesus gives to all who believe in his name, who receive with thanksgiving the gift of the blood shed for them. That is why he went to the cross. So that you would have forgiveness. And where there is forgiveness, there is also life and salvation.