This post was first published November 26, 2018. –ed.
Have you ever considered the stark contrast between Judas Iscariot and the thief on the cross? One was a close disciple of Jesus Christ and gave three years of his life to the best, most intensive religious instruction available anywhere. But he lost his soul forever. The other was a hardened, lifelong criminal who was still mocking everything holy while being put to death for his crimes. But he went straight to paradise forever.
The difference in the two men could hardly be more pronounced—nor could the endings to their respective life stories be more surprising. Judas was a disciple in Christ’s closest circle of twelve. He preached, evangelized, ministered, and was even given power “over all the demons and to heal diseases” (Luke 9:1). He seemed like a model disciple. When Jesus predicted that one of the twelve would betray Him, no one pointed the finger of suspicion at Judas. He was so thoroughly trusted by the other disciples that they had made him their treasurer (John 13:29). They evidently saw nothing in his character or attitude that seemed questionable, much less diabolical. But he betrayed Christ, ended his own miserable life by suicide, and entered into eternal damnation laden with horrific guilt. Christ’s words about him in Mark 14:21 are chilling: “Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.”
The thief on the cross, on the other hand, was a career criminal—a serious enough villain that he had been sentenced to die by the slowest, most painful form of capital punishment known to man. He’s called a robber in Matthew 27:38—the Greek word there speaks of a brigand or a highwayman. He was crucified with a partner—both had been slated to be executed along with Barabbas, an insurrectionist and killer (Luke 23:18–19). All of that indicates that the thief on the cross was part of a gang of cutthroat ruffians who stole by violence and lived by no law but their own passions. He was clearly vicious, mean-spirited, and aggressive because in the early hours of the crucifixion, both he and his cohort in crime were taunting and reviling Jesus along with the mocking crowd (Matthew 27:44).
But as that thief watched Jesus die silently—“oppressed . . . afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7)—the hardened criminal had a remarkable last-minute change of heart. Literally in the dying moments of his wretched earthly life, he confessed his sin (Luke 23:41), uttered a simple prayer: “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42)—and was ushered that very day into paradise (Luke 23:43), clothed in perfect righteousness, all his guilt borne and paid for in full by Christ.
Those who think heaven is a reward for doing good might protest that this was throwing justice out the window. The thief had done nothing whatsoever to merit heaven. If it’s possible to forgive such a man so completely in the dying moments of a wretched life filled with gross sin, wouldn’t it also be proper for Judas’s one act of treachery to be canceled (or mitigated) on the basis of whatever good works he had done while following Christ for three years? People do occasionally raise questions like that. The Internet is dotted with comments and articles suggesting Judas was dealt with unfairly or judged too harshly.
Judas himself seemed to be the type of person who kept score on such matters. He protested, for example, when Mary anointed the feet of Jesus with a costly fragrance. He knew the precise value of the ointment (equal to a year’s wages), and he complained, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?” (John 12:5). He no doubt would have thought that the grace Jesus showed the thief was inappropriately extravagant as well.
People who have devoted their lives to religion do sometimes seem to resent it when God reaches out and graciously redeems someone whom they deem unworthy of divine favor.
Justice vs. Grace?
What we have to bear in mind is that all people are totally unworthy. No one deserves God’s favor. We are all guilty sinners who deserve nothing less than damnation. No one who has sinned has any rightful claim on the kindness of God.
God, on the other hand, has every right to show mercy and compassion to whomever He chooses (Exodus 33:19). Furthermore, when He shows mercy it is always in lavish abundance. As He told Moses, He is “the Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6–7).
People who protest that God is unfair or unjust when He shows grace to the least-deserving people simply do not understand the principle of grace. Undiluted justice would mean immediate death for every sinner, because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The truth is, nobody really wants what is “fair.” We all desperately need mercy and grace.
At the same time, grace is not unjust, because Christ made full atonement for the sins of those who trust Him—and thereby turned justice in their favor. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9, NKJV, emphasis added). Because Christ took the penalty of sin on Himself, God can justify believing sinners (even notorious sinners like the thief on the cross) without compromising His own righteousness. “He [is both] just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).
What if God shows mercy to a wretched thief in his death throes while condemning someone with a religious track record like Judas? “There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!” (Romans 9:14). “He has mercy on whom He desires” (Romans 9:18).
God’s mercy must never be thought of as a reward for good works. Heaven is not a prize for people who deserve it. God “justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:5). Grace is by definition undeserved, but it is not unjust or “unfair.” Don’t try to subject God’s grace to childish notions about fair play and equity. No one has any rightful claim on God’s mercy. He is perfectly free to dispense His grace however He sees fit. As He told Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15).
A Lesson about Justice and Grace
In Matthew 20:1–15, Jesus tells a parable that illustrates those principles:
The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, “You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.” And so they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why have you been standing here idle all day long?” They said to him, “Because no one hired us.” He said to them, “You go into the vineyard too.”
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.” When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, “These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.” But he answered and said to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?”
Like all parables, this one aims to teach a profound spiritual truth. Jesus is not making a point about fair labor laws, minimum wage, equity in our business dealings, or any other earthly principle. He is describing how grace works in the sphere where God rules.
In the days ahead we’ll explore the parable of the vineyard, discover its true meaning, and consider the implications for our lives today.
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