“This man has done nothing wrong,” says the criminal who has become known to us as the penitent thief. In the Greek, the word we translate as “wrong” is one which literally means “out of place” – atopos. “This man has done nothing out of place”, he says, and yet here is Jesus, very much out of place, outside the city walls, on a cross. He hangs between two people who know full well that in the cruel judicial climate of their times, they were getting what they should have always seen coming to them. We may not agree with capital punishment, let alone brutal public execution like this, but the two criminals crucified with Jesus lived in a society where it was commonplace; they might not have wanted it to happen to them, but they didn’t think there was anything unusual or unjust in it happening in itself. It was just the price you expected to pay if you did wrong. But this man crucified between them has done nothing wrong, nothing that should have brought him to this place, and it is that fact which stuns the thief crucified on his right. Something new and strange is happening here, he realises. A man who didn’t have to be here, who could have turned back and saved himself, has chosen to let himself be “numbered among the transgressors,” as the Old Testament reading put it. He’s done nothing “out of place” and yet here he is, out of place on the cross.
In fact, Jesus has been “out of place” his entire life, out of place at his birth, in a stable – what kind of place is that to have a child, out of place as an exile in Egypt, escaping Herod’s wrath. And when he grew up he didn’t choose the lifestyle of a respectable rabbi. He went among people who were “beyond the pale”, outsiders of various kinds, women, children, foreigners, people who were ritually unclean, morally suspect, suffering from diseases which others saw as proof that God was punishing them. In the kingdom he was bringing in they would not only be accepted, but at the head of the queue, welcomed, healed, forgiven by God, given status and dignity. It’s not hard to see why that would have worried those in power; it spelled trouble, disruption. They had nothing to gain and everything to lose as far as they could see. So once again, and for what the religious authorities hoped was the last time, Jesus found himself “out of place”, nailed to a cross outside the city walls, dying among those he has lived for.
If you’ve had a chance to look at the display here beside the pulpit you will have seen that it focuses on this story of the penitent thief, the one who recognised Jesus’ “out of placeness”. It also, though, has a collection of prayer requests on it. They come from young men who are prisoners in Rochester Young Offenders Institution. I happen to know the Anglican Chaplain to the prison, Susie Simpson, so I asked her if it would be possible for her to ask the young men who are part of her Lent group in the prison to tell us what they would like us to pray for.
They responded with enthusiasm as you can tell if you read their requests which come straight from the heart. There are requests for prayer for families left behind while they are serving their sentences, for strength to cope with being in prison, and that somehow they will be able to turn their lives around, learn to live the right way, make their mums proud of them. They know as well as anyone that going straight is hard and that they might not make it, but many of them want to try. Just like that penitent thief somewhere deep down a lot of these young men are hungry for love, for hope, for a new life. And that hunger is enough for Jesus. “Today, you will be with me in paradise,” he says.
It is easy for us to judge others, to take a quick look at lives that have gone awry and write them off. “Lock them up and throw away the key,” the tabloids cry, but that isn’t the way of Christ. He makes himself at home wherever people need him – on the cross, in the prison cell, in the squalor, the darkness and the broken dreams which most of us turn away from and try to pretend aren’t there. It is important that we understand this, not just for the sake of those who are obviously – to our eyes – “beyond the pale” – those lads in Rochester Prison for example - but for our own sakes too. We may never been on the wrong side of the prison gates, but the fact is that we have all done things we are rightly ashamed of, things we’d rather forget, things that can’t be put right or airbrushed away. If we take the attitude that sin and those who commit it should be kept out of sight and out of mind, what is God to do with those dark places in ourselves? How can he bring healing to those places, if we will not admit that they exist?
So today, pray for these boys who have asked our prayers. “Remember us,” they ask, just as that thief on the cross did. But let us remember also those parts of ourselves which need forgiveness and healing. Christ lived and died beyond the pale. He is still ready to go beyond the pale for us now, to be “out of place” in the dark places of our souls, bringing his kingdom to us and to all people, and bringing all people into his kingdom.