“Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39).
When read together, the gospels render seven utterances of Jesus from the cross.
These “seven last words” have been the focus of much study and reflection. They have been expounded from pulpits and lecterns; sung from choir lofts and concert halls. Much of what Jesus speaks from the cross is prayer. He asks God to forgive his executioners. He also cries out in his dark moments of God forsaken-ness. Merciful prayers, anguished prayers, and some in between.
But Jesus isn’t the only one praying.
Jesus was crucified with two criminals. One of these criminals is humble and penitent. The other is a mocker. One of them makes a confession. The other makes demands. One of them, at the end of himself, looks to Jesus for salvation. The other wants nothing more than a way out.
One of them trusts. The other taunts.
Two (very) Different Prayers
The penitent and the mocker speak from the cross and their words are also a form of prayer. Both criminals address Jesus directly; both make requests of him. But these two convicts pray very different prayers.
One of those prayers is demanding and angry. Spoken from the place of threat and trouble, this prayer seeks escape and little more. The one praying is not interested in God as much as getting results, getting rescued, getting out, getting away. The caustic words of the petition are tainted with mockery, reflecting the words of the surrounding crowd, the prevailing culture. Let Jesus prove himself. The essence of the prayer is simple: “Get me out of this mess.”
The other prayer comes from a different place, from a different man. This prayer comes from a man who recognizes the truth about himself. What’s more, he recognizes the truth about Jesus. Jesus’ innocence exposes the criminal’s guilt. This prayer isn’t seeking to escape. Rather, it seeks to enter into the reality over which Jesus is King. The essence of this prayer is also simple: “Remember me.”
Drawn to our Desperation?
On any given day we pray from both sides of the cross.
There are days – usually hard days – when we want to say that if God were truly good and truly powerful, then our circumstances would change. God could fix the problem and bring order to the mess of our lives if only he would. We sometimes pray through clenched teeth. Do something God! Make it right! I’ve uttered some prayers like that in recent days.
And sometimes we pray from a far humbler place. We gather the courage to face what is rather than insisting on what we want. We know all too well now, that can be hard to do. We’ve run hard into our limitations. We’ve been humbled. And we ask for grace because we know that in the end only grace can save us.
I know there’s a mocker in me. I’ve had moments when I felt like Jesus wasn’t holding up his end of the “follow me” deal. I’ve tried to instruct him as to what he should do and when he should do it. I’ve harbored questions about his goodness. But in his kindness, Jesus seems to lead me to the other side of the cross where I see my sin and his perfections. The side where I ask him to do what I cannot do for myself.
Jesus doesn’t usually respond to my demands, if ever. But he is always faithful in my desperation.
From which side of the cross are you praying today?
Once again, we ask you, Lord Jesus, teach us to pray. Our prayers flip-flop, moving from one side of your cross to the other. We make demands; we humbly ask for mercy. Help us to pray from the foot of your cross, covered by your grace, placing our concerns and our lives into your hands. Amen.
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