The Eleventh Hour Gift
by Max Lucado
Nicodemus came in the middle of the night. The centurion came in the middle of the day. The leper and the sinful woman appeared in the middle of crowds. Zacchaeus appeared in the middle of a tree. Matthew has a party for him.
The educated. The powerful. The rejected. The sick. The lonely. The wealthy. Who would have assembled such a crew? All they had in common were their empty hope chests, long left vacant by charlatans and profiteers. Though they had nothing to offer, they asked for everything: a new birth, a second chance, a fresh start, a clean conscience. And without exception their requests were honored.
And now, one more beggar comes with a request. Only minutes from the death of them both, he stands before the King. He will ask for crumbs. And he, like the others, will receive a whole loaf.
Skull's hill - windswept and stony. The thief - gaunt and pale.
Hinges squeak as the door of death closes on his life.
His situation is pitiful. He's taking the last step down the spiral staircase of failure. One crime after another. One rejection after another. Lower and lower he descended until he reached the bottom - a crossbeam and three spikes.
He can't hide who he is. His only clothing is the cloak of his disgrace. No fancy jargon. No impressive resumé. No Sunday school awards. Just a naked history of failure.
He sees Jesus.
Earlier he had mocked the man. When the crowd first chorused its criticism, he'd sung his part. But now he doesn't mock Jesus. He studies him. He begins to wonder who this man might be.
How strange. He doesn't resist the nails, he almost invites them.
He hears the jests and the insults and sees the man remain quiet. He sees the fresh blood on Jesus' cheeks, the crown of thorns scraping Jesus' scalp and he hears the hoarse whisper, "Father, forgive them."
Why do they want him dead?
Slowly the thief's curiosity offsets the pain in his body. He momentarily forgets the nails rubbing against the raw bones of his wrists and the cramps in his calves.
He begins to feel a peculiar warmth in his heart: he begins to care; he begins to care about this peaceful martyr.
There's no anger in his eyes, only tears.
He looks at the huddle of soldiers throwing dice in the dirt, gambling for a ragged robe. He sees the sign above Jesus' head. It's painted with sarcasm: King of the Jews.
They mock him as a king. If he were crazy, they would ignore him. If he had no followers, they'd turn him away. If he was nothing to fear, they wouldn't kill him. You only kill a king if he has a kingdom.
Could it be. . . .
Then, all of a sudden, his thoughts are exploded by the accusations of the criminal on the other cross. He, too, has been studying Jesus, but studying through the blurred lens of cynicism.
"So you're the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself - and us, too, while you're at it!"
It's an inexplicable dilemma - how two people can hear the same words and see the same Savior, and one see hope and the other see nothing but himself.
It was all the first criminal could take. Perhaps the crook who hurled the barb expected the other crook to take the cue and hurl a few of his own. But he didn't. No second verse was sung. What the bitter-tongued criminal did hear were words of defense.
"Don't you fear God?"
Only minutes before these same lips had cursed Jesus. Now they are defending him. Every head on the hills lifts to look at this one who spoke on behalf of the Christ. Every angel weeps and every demon gasps.
Who could have imagined this thief thinking of anyone but himself? He'd always been the bully, the purse-snatching brat. Who could remember the last time he'd come to someone's aid? But as the last grains of sand trickle through his hourglass, he performs man's noblest act. He speaks on God's behalf.
Where are those we would expect to defend him?
A much more spiritual Peter has abandoned him.
A much more educated Pilate has washed his hands of him.
A much more loyal mob of countrymen has demanded his death.
A much more faithful band of disciples has scattered.
When it seems that everyone has turned away, a crook places himself between Jesus and the accusers and speaks on his behalf.
"Don't you even fear God when you are dying? We deserve to die for our evil deeds, but this man hasn't done one thing wrong."
The soldiers look up. The priests cease chattering. Mary wipes her tears and raises her eyes. No one had even noticed the fellow, but now everyone looks at him.
Perhaps even Jesus looks at him. Perhaps he turns to see the one who had spoken when all others had remained silent. Perhaps he fights to focus his eyes on the one who offered this final gesture of love he'd receive while alive. I wonder, did he smile as this sheep straggled into the fold?
For that, in effect, is exactly what the criminal is doing. He is stumbling to safety just as the gate is closing. Lodged in the thief's statement are the two facts that anyone needs to recognize in order to come to Jesus. Look at the phrase again. Do you see them?
"We are getting what we deserve. This man has done nothing wrong."
We are guilty and he is innocent.
We are filthy and he is pure.
We are wrong and he is right.
He is not on that cross for his sins. He is there for ours.
And once the crook understands this, his request seems only natural. As he looks into the eyes of his last hope, he made the same request any Christian has made.
"Remember me when you come into your Kingdom."
No stained-glass homilies. No excuses. Just a desperate plea for help.
At this point Jesus performs the greatest miracle of the cross. Greater than the earthquake. Greater than the tearing of the temple curtain. Greater than the darkness. Greater than the resurrected saints appearing in the streets.
He performs the miracle of forgiveness. A sin-soaked criminal is received by a blood-stained Savior.
"Today you will be with me in Paradise. This is a solemn promise."
Wow. Only seconds before the thief was a beggar nervously squeezing his hat at the castle door, wondering if the King might spare a few crumbs. Suddenly he's holding the whole pantry.
Such is the definition of grace.
From: Six Hours One Friday
Softly and Tenderly