Which robber are you?
Here's the reason: I think the picture of Christ and two criminals on either side is a microcosm of the gospel, and more specifically Christianity as a whole. Think about it for a moment. If you take the four Gospels together and read through each of the accounts of the Crucifixion I think you get a very unique perspective on the entire event. In particular, focus on the representations of the criminals. Matthew and Mark say almost the same thing:
And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way. (Matt 27:44)
Those who were crucified with him also reviled him. (Mark 15:32)
Both are scant mentions, and both are rather negative. Along the same lines, but with no tone whatsoever, John simply mentions the criminals in passing (There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. John 19:18) . On the other hand Luke relates a conversation between the criminals and Jesus. He breathes into them a certain amount of reality that doesn't exist in any of the other Gospels.
32Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34And Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."[b] And they cast lots to divide his garments. 35And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!" 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" 38There was also an inscription over him,[c] "This is the King of the Jews." 39One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him,[d] saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" 40But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." 42And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." 43And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
Now I am not suspicious of any contradictions that may appear upon reading each of these accounts separately. I am convinced that the Bible isn't meant to be read in minute sections; especially when there are multiple records of the same event. Each one contributes a new piece to the entire story. And here's one small, very human, moment of the cross that I think requires a great deal more respect than it gets.
First, we acknowledge that Christ was not crucified alone. Two criminals were put to death with him. This was clearly to fulfill scripture, Isaiah 53:12 - "He was counted with the lawless ones". The small, but poignant prophecy, indicates God's intentions were quite clear that Jesus would not die alone.
Second, two gospels (Matthew and Mark) only mention that the criminals "reviled" Christ. I think this is important because they represent us, as sinners. The tenet of total depravity is a sure indication that we would not have chosen Christ, nor would we have defended him at the cross. Even his own disciples ran when he was arrested. Indeed our reaction to the cross would have been the exact same: hating the man who said he had come to save us. Mocking him from below, questioning his Godhead, while escalating their pride. Likely most of them thought they had fixed an insidious problem. Gladly the story doesn't end there....
One of the criminals, perhaps even within several breaths of mocking Christ, rebukes his fellow robber. Here is a man, confronted with imminent death, probably in excruciating pain, who is suddenly considering his immortal soul. He knows he is only a short time from meeting his God. Obviously up until this point things have not gone as planned. He's clearly lived a rather poor life, being forced to commit crimes, and ultimately ending up on the execution block. Likely not how he intended things to turn out. But even there, with death screaming at the door, he acknowledges his God. Defending Christ with a remarkable realization: this Jesus, had done nothing wrong, but still suffered the sentence of condemned criminals. This was not done, this was something different.
Finally, in a honest act of affection and trust, he turns to Christ and says: Remember me when you come into your kingdom. Jesus, in turn, remarks that this criminal will indeed meet with him in paradise. Isn't that just the picture of Christ, saving even at the very end of his earthly life.
A couple of quick things:
1. God will save anyone at anytime. Never expect someone to be outside the realm of God's saving grace.
2. The criminals represent the human condition. We are all in sin, and God has elected some to salvation. You'll note quite quickly that the other criminal after being rebuked receives no further mention. While it is not definitively known, it is clear he was not saved. Some may call this unfair, I would say in light of what Christ was doing on the cross, it would be more aptly called justice.
3. A moral and upright life is no indication of where you'll end up for eternity. Here a criminal who was suffering the death penalty (we can assume he did something really bad) was saved with hours of death. My God could do it within seconds of death if he so desired, and his call was placed upon that persons heart.
So, in conclusion, think often on the death of Christ and what it means to you as a Christian. Then question the type of criminal you are: are you the one who believes or the one who is silent and vanishes into history. And when you think on the crucifixion remember the criminals and remember what they mean to the entire story. They certainly do not contribute anything to the saving power of the cross, but they do represent our sinful condition and subsequently God's grace and justice, and for that they deserve our acknowledgement.