The Tale Of The Crucified Crook
The only thing more outlandish than the request was that it was granted. Just trying to picture the scene is enough to short-circuit the most fanciful of imaginations; a flatnosed ex-con asking God's son for eternal life? But trying to imagine the appeal being honored, well, that steps beyond the realm of reality and enters absurdity.
But as absurd as it may appear, that's exactly what happened. He who deserved hell got heaven, and we are left with a puzzling riddle. What, for goodness' sake, was Jesus trying to teach us? What was he trying to prove by pardoning this strong-arm, who in all probability had never said grace, much less done anything to deserve it?
Well, I've got a theory. But to explain it, I've got to tell you a tale that you may not believe.
It seems a couple of prowlers broke into a department store in a large city. They successfully entered the store, stayed long enough to do what they came to do, and escaped unnoticed. What is unusual about the story is what these fellows did. They took nothing. Absolutely nothing. No merchandise was stolen. No items were removed. But what they did do was ridiculous.
Instead of stealing anything, they changed the cost of everything. Price tags were swapped. Values were exchanged. These clever pranksters took the tag off a $395.00 camera and stuck it on a $5.00 box of stationary. The $5.95 sticker on a paperback book was removed and placed on an outboard moter. They repriced everything in the store!
Crazy? You bet. But the craziest part of this story took place the next morning. (You are not going to believe this.) The store opened as usual. Employees went to work. Customers began to shop. The place functioned as normal for four hours before anyone noticed what had happened.
Four Hours! Some people got some great bargains. Others got fleeced. For four solid hours no one noticed that all the values had been swapped.
Hard to believe? It shouldn't be - we see the same thing happening every day. We are deluged by a distorted value system. We see the most valuable things in our lives peddled for pennies and we see the cheapest smut go for millions.
The examples are abundant and besetting. Here are a few that I've encountered in the last week.
The salesman who defended his illegal practices by saying, "Let's not confuse business with ethics."
The military men who sold top-secret information (as well as their integrity) for $6,000.
The cabinet member of a large nation who was caught illegally dealing in semi-precious stones. His cabinet position? Minister of Justice.
The father who confessed to the murder of his twelve-year-old daughter. The reason he killed her? She refused to go to bed with him.
Why do we do what we do? Why do we take blatantly black-and-white and paint it gray? Why are priceless mores trashed while senseless standards are obeyed? What causes us to elevate the body and degrade the soul? What causes us to pamper the skin while we pollute the heart?
Our values are messed up. Someone broke into the store and exchanged all the price tags. Thrills are going for top dollar and the value of human beings is at an all-time low.
One doesn't have to be a philosopher to determine what caused such a sag in the market. It all began when someone convinced us that the human race is headed nowhere. That man has no destiny. That we are in a cycle. That there is no reason or rhyme to this absurd existence. Somewhere we got the idea that we are meaninglessly trapped on a puny mudheap that has no destination. The earth is just a spinning mausoleum and the universe is purposeless. The creation was incidental and humanity has no direction.
Pretty gloomy, huh?
The second verse is even worse. If man has no destiny, then he has no duty. No obligation, no responsibility. If man has no destiny, then who is to say what is right or wrong? Who is to say that a husband can't leave his wife and family? Who is to say you can't abort a fetus? What is wrong with shacking up? Who says I can't step on someone's neck to get to the top? It's your value system against mine. No absolutes. No principles. No ethics. No standards. Life is reduced to weekends, paychecks, and quick thrills. The bottom line is disaster.
"The existentialist," writes existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, "finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. . . Everything is indeed forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend on within or without himself."
If man has no duty or destiny, the next logical step is that man has no value. If man has no future, he isn't worth much. He is worth, in fact, about as much as a tree or a rock. No difference. There is no reason to be here, therefore, there is no value.
And you've seen the results of this. Our system goes haywire. We feel useless and worthless. We freak out. We play games. We create false value systems. We say that you are valuable if you are pretty. We say that you are valuable if you can produce. We say that you are valuable if you can slam-dunk a basketball or snag a pop fly. You are valuable if your name has a "Dr." in front of it or Ph.D. on the end of it. You are valuable if you have a six-figure salary and drive a foreign car.
Value is now measured by two criteria, appearance and performance.
Pretty tough system, isn't it? Where does that leave the retarded? Or the ugly or uneducated? Where does that place the aged or the handicapped? What hope does that offer the unborn child? Not much. Not much at all. We become nameless numbers on mislaid lists.
Now please understand, this is man's system. It's not God's. His plan is much brighter. God, with eyes twinkling, steps up to the philosopher's blackboard, erases the never-ending, ever-repeating circle of history and replaces it with a line; a hopefilled, promising, slender line. And, looking over his shoulder to see if the class is watching, he draws an arrow at the end.
In God's book man is heading somewhere. He has an amazing destiny. We are being prepared to walk down the church aisle and become the bride of Jesus. We are going to live with him. Share the throne with him. Reign with him. We count. We are valuable. And what's more, our worth is built in! Our value is inborn.
You see, if there was anything that Jesus wanted everyone to understand it was this: A person is worth something simply because he is a person. That is why he treated people like he did. Think about it. The girl caught making undercover thunder with someone she shouldn't - he forgave her. The untouchable leper who asked for cleansing - he touched him. And the blind welfare case that cluttered the roadside - he honored him. And the worn-out old windbag addicted to self-pity near the pool of Siloam - he healed him!
And don't forget the classic case study on the value of a person by Luke. It is called "The Tale of the Crucified Crook."
If anyone was ever worthless, this one was. If any man ever deserved dying, this man probably did. If any fellow was ever a loser, this fellow was at the top of the list.
Perhaps that is why Jesus chose him to show us what he thinks of the human race.
Maybe this criminal had heard the Messiah speak. Maybe he has seen him love the lowly. Maybe he had watched him dine with the punks, pickpockets, and potmouths of the street. Or maybe not. Maybe the only thing he knew about the Messiah was what he now saw: a beaten, slashed, nail-suspended preacher. His face crimson with blood, his bones peeking through torn flesh, his lungs gasping for air.
Something, though, told him he had never been in better compnay. And somehow he realized that even though all he had was prayer, he had finally met the One to whom he should be praying.
"Any chance that you could put in a good word for me?" (Loose translation.)
"Consider it done."
Now why did Jesus do that? What in the world did he have to gain by promising this desperado a place of honor at the banquet table? What in the world could this chisling quisling ever offer in return? I mean, the Samaritan woman I can understand. She could go back and tell the tale. And Zacchaeus had some money that he could give. But this guy? What is he going to do? Nothing!
That's the point. Listen closely. Jesus' love does not depend upon what we do for him. Not at all. In the eyes of the King, you have value simply because you are. You don't have to look nice or perform well. Your value is inborn.
Think about that for just a minute. You are valuable just because you exist. Not because of what you do or what you have done, but simply because you are. Remember that. Remember that the next time you are left bobbing in the wake of someone's steamboat ambition. Remember that the next time some trickster tries to hang a bargain basement price tag on your self-worth. The next time someone tries to pass you off as a cheap buy, just think about the way Jesus honors you . . . and smile.
I do. I smile because I know I don't deserve love like that. None of us do. When you get right down to it, any contribution that any of us make is pretty puny. All of us - even the purest of us - deserve heaven about as much as that crook did. All of us are signing on Jesus' credit card, not ours.
And it also makes me smile to think that there is a grinning ex-con walking the golden streets who knows more about grace than a thousand theologians. No one else would have given him a prayer. But in the end that is all that he had. In the end, that is all it took.
No wonder they call him the Savior.
By Max Lucado
Softly and Tenderly