Part 4 of 9
You Will Be with Me in Paradise
He replied, “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43
Today, much is lost when one reads these words in Luke’s gospel. Partly because we read them from our context, or in the way a Greek would have read them, rather than the way a first century, Second Temple, Jew would have heard this statement.
Paradise, within the cultural context of Luke’s Gospel, did not mean some far-distant “heaven” (Christians today). It did not refer to a place of post-mortem bliss (Greek-Hellenists of the first century). To a first century Jew, living in the wake of the Maccabees, and longing for a deliverance from Roman oppression, Paradise was a restored earth, where injustice, oppression, and violence were no more. Remember, the great hope of the Hebrew people was in a Messiah who would come and set the world right.
The Greek word used in Luke’s gospel for “Paradise” is paradeisos. A brief look at the way paradiesos was used in the Septuagint will pull back the veil for us. Paradeisos was the world used to refer to Eden, both past and future.
You were in Eden, the paradise [paradeisos] of God. (Ezekiel 28:13, LXX) And God planted a garden [paradeisos] eastward in Eden. (Genesis 2:8)
Paradeisos, in the Septuagint, referred not only to the Eden of the past, but it also came to be associated, in Jewish thinking, with the restoration of Israel in the future.
For the LORD will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden [paradeisos] of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. (Isaiah 51:3)
The Orthodox Jewish Bible translates Luke 23:43 as “I say to you, hayom (today) with me you will be in Gan Eden.”
However, the Hebrew prophets must also be held in tension with Jesus. The prophets are filled with depictions of God as a warrior who would liberate Israel through slaughtering Israel’s enemies, unlike Jesus’ nonviolent direct action, which would seek to win over one’s enemies.  The prophets speak of a restoration of the monarchy (albeit a monarchy built on justice). Jesus sought to redefine the Kingdom (the Monarchy) away from hierarchical authority to a social order built upon mutual love, mutual submission, and mutual respect.  The prophets also contain, at times, national exceptionalism, which is the dangerous idea that one group of people or one nation was or is more favored by a Divine being than others. Jesus would challenge this idea, too, putting forth that his liberation was not only for Israel but for the whole world, including those whom Israel hated.  What the prophets got right was that there was coming a time when injustice, oppression, and violence would be made right. Jesus simply enlarged this vision to include all types of oppression, injustice, and violence, not simply that which affected the privileged class within Israel.
The evidence shows that the early Jesus community did not interpret paradeisos as post- mortem bliss either. They, in following Jesus, enlarged this word to refer to the liberation and restoration of all things here, now! Growing out of their own cultural context, discovering over time how Jesus’ liberation impacted their own social constructs of oppression, we are to do the same today. The early Jesus community believed that the work of liberating the world from injustice had been initiated by their Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection. They were discovering how this liberation would eventually permeate all forms of oppression, privilege, and marginalization. That process is not finished. It was not completed in the days of the Apostles. Nor in the generation that followed them. The history of Christianity reveals that Christianity as a whole (although there have been and are exceptions) has taken a long detour away from this work of restoring paradise. The work of justice and liberation from all oppression has gone on, for many, outside of and in many cases, in spite of, what is today referred to as Christianity. But as many have shown throughout history, the ethical teachings of the Jesus of the very early Jesus community still possess value today in approaching paradise. 
What makes Jesus’ statement in Luke’s gospel even more astounding is the realization of to whom it is addressed. This was one of the kakourgos [criminals] crucified with him. Remember, this is not a kleptes [thief] but a kakourgos. A kakourgos in Roman times was an enemy of the state. Crucifixion was not a capital punishment for just any crime. This was a punishment reserved for those Rome deemed a threat to the “national interests” of the Roman Empire. This was a Jewish zealot who had sought to overthrow Rome’s presence in Jerusalem through violent, terrorist-like methods. What this political criminal is discovering is that Jesus’ way is the better way. His own violent way had failed. Many times an oppressed group simply does not have the force of arms or numbers to overthrow their oppressors through violent means. This option is simply not at their disposal. Jesus was offering the long, and difficult path of defeating injustice through the nonviolent, direct action of enemy-confrontation and love.  And this zealot was discovering, much like many in India did through Gandhi and others here in the U.S. did through Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that there was hope to be found in the methods of this Jesus who was being lynched beside him. For this political criminal, this was the end of his endeavors. For Jesus, this was only the beginning! This was the beginning of a whole new world. What this criminal is verbalizing is an admission that his way had not worked. He is stating a newly realized discovery that Jesus’ way did offer hope. He is admitting that Jesus’ way would work in the end, and he simply wanted Jesus, when Jesus’ “Kingdom” was eventually established, in some far-distant future, he wanted Jesus to simply remember him. Jesus turns and whispers to this last-minute, new disciple “Today, you will be with me in the liberated and restored world. Today, you will be with me in the paradeisos.”
This is what many scholars refer to when they use the phrase “already, but not yet.” As followers of Jesus, the disciples were to go forth proclaiming that Jesus’ new social order had arrived. It was already here!  And although its presence was obstructed, it would continue to subversively grow, like the mustard seed, until it had permeated the entire “garden.” What Jesus is whispering to this one beside him is that Paradise has arrived, here, now! And that he was privileged to see it beginning. With the overthrow and undoing of the crucifixion of Jesus (at the hands of the domination system of his day) through the resurrection the new world had begun!
There is debate over whether Jesus was “telling” the political criminal beside him “today” or whether Jesus was saying they would be together in Paradise “today.”  In Acts 20:26, Luke does place in the mouth of Paul these words, “Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you.” Yet, I favor Luke’s theme of Jesus’ continuous use of the present tense of “Today” such as in Luke 4:18–21:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Where does this leave us right now?
Jesus’ words were not telling the one beside him that he and Jesus would spend the afternoon in some far-distant, post-mortem bliss. This was one last and final announcement by Luke’s Jesus that in Jesus’ Kingdom, the hope of the Hebrew people, the long-awaited “paradeisos” had come. The Jewish hope of a restored world, a restored Paradise, where all injustice, oppression, and violence are made right, had come. And what that fellow, also crucified, would look back on at some point in the future and see is that he was given the privilege of being at Jesus’ side to witness its beginning.
- Very rarely do I recommend books to HeartGroups. This week I want to recommend Saving Paradise by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker. James H. Cone said of this volume, “Every Christian theologian and preacher should read this book and be profoundly challenged.” Even if you can’t afford to purchase it, you can read the prologue and the first chapter here and here. This week, I simply would like you to read the prologue and Chapter 1.
- Journal your thoughts as you contemplatively read.
- Share what you discover with your upcoming HeartGroup.
In the beginning period of Christian history, Paradise was the dominant image of early Christian art. Christian art was saturated with a living Jesus, as a living presence in a vibrant world pictured as a restored “paradise.” Christianity over time has turned from the teachings of this Jesus of the early Jesus community to such things as escapism, redemptive violence, conquest, and colonization, holy war, support of oppressive Empires and their national interests, and support of countless other socially oppressive ideologies. Yes there are exceptions, but to a large degree, Christianity made a departure from the early Jesus-movements’ definitions of and ethics of Jesus’ “paradise.” It’s time for a return to the way of the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It’s time to pick back up the work of liberation he began, and to flesh it out even further in our day.
Again, the early church was a group of people endeavoring to follow the teachings of Jesus into this new world, this new social order. The old order of things  was passing away. They were embarking on a journey of following Jesus and discovering what social constructs of their present world were old order things that must give way to new order things, and which parts were not. (One such example is the transition from the national exceptionalism of Judaism to including the uncircumcised Gentiles. This was the earliest, and most difficult transition for Jesus followers coming out of Judaism.) The Apostles and early Jesus followers did not finish this journey. They didn’t always get it right. They went as far as they could, given their own context. It’s up to us, standing in their lineage, to continue the work of liberation that Jesus began.  It’s up to us to continue the work of liberation from domination systems in our day. Whether it’s systemic racial superiority, national superiority, religious superiority, gender superiority, cisgender superiority, superiority of a particular sexual orientation, educational superiority, or economic superiority, as a Jesus follower, we are called to carry forward the work that Jesus began. Every time our stories align with the Jesus story, it can be said, “today,” we are with Jesus . . . “in paradise.”
Jesus is still out there recruiting.
Some know him by name, others only by spirit.
I close this week with my own modern adaptation of the words of third Isaiah:
Do you think that is the way I want you to fast?
Is it only a time for people to make themselves suffer?
Is it only for people to bow their heads like tall grass bent by the wind?
Is it only for people to lie down in ashes and clothes of mourning? Is that what you call a fast?
Do you think I can accept that?
Here is the way I want you to fast.
Set free those who are held by chains of injustice. Untie the ropes that hold people in subordination. Set free those who are oppressed.
Break every evil chain.
Give away your privilege to the disadvantaged.
Provide the marginalized with a world that is safe.
When you see someone denied what is right, give what you have to them, that there may be equality.
Do not turn away from others who are in all actuality “your own flesh” for they too are “the image of God.”
Then light will break forth like the dawn, and YOUR healing will spring up quickly.
(Adapted from Isaiah 58 by Herb Montgomery)
Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns. Many voices, one new world. I love each of you; I’ll see you next week.