Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed (Luke 23:32).
When read together, the gospels render seven utterances of Jesus from the cross. These “seven last words” have been the focus of much study and reflection. They have been expounded from pulpits and lecterns; sung from choir lofts and concert halls. Much of what Jesus speaks from the cross is prayer. He asks God to forgive his executioners. He also cries out in his dark moments of God-forsakenness. Merciful prayers, anguished prayers, and some in between.
But Jesus isn’t the only one praying. Jesus was crucified with two criminals. They too speak from the cross, and if we listen to their words we hear prayer laced throughout. Both criminals address Jesus directly; both make requests of him. But these two convicts pray very different prayers.
One of those prayers is demanding and angry. Spoken from the place of threat and trouble, this prayer seeks escape and little more. The one praying is not interested in God. This prayer is about getting results, getting rescued, getting out, getting away. The caustic words of the petition reflect the words of the surrounding crowd and the prevailing culture. Let Jesus prove himself. The essence of the prayer is simple: “Get me out of this mess.”
The other prayer comes from a different place, from a different man. This prayer comes from a man who recognizes the truth about himself. What’s more, he recognizes the truth about Jesus. Jesus’ innocence exposes the criminal’s guilt. This prayer isn’t seeking to escape. Rather, it seeks to enter into the reality over which Jesus is King. The essence of this prayer is also simple: “Remember me.”
On any given day we pray from one side of the cross or the other.
There are days – usually hard days - when we want to say that if God were truly good and truly powerful, then our circumstances would change. Things would be different. God could fix the problem and bring order to the mess of our lives if only he would. We sometimes pray through clenched teeth. Do something God! Make it right!
And sometimes we pray from a far more humble place. We gather the courage to face what is rather than insisting on what we want. We know the truth about our lives and we own what’s worthy as well as what is shameful. And we ask for grace because we know that in the end only grace can save us.
From which side of the cross are you praying today?
Once again we ask you, Lord Jesus, teach us to pray. Our prayers flip-flop, moving from one side of your cross to the other. We make demands; we humbly ask for mercy. Help us to pray from the foot of your cross, covered by your grace, placing our concerns and our lives into your hands. Amen.