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Today you will be with me in paradise

On the second of the Seven Last Words of Jesus (Luke 23:43)

The word paradise comes from a Persian word that had been incorporated into Greek. This passage is the only time it is used in the New Testament, and it is used in the ancient Greek version (Septuagint) of the Hebrew Testament also only once: to refer to the Garden of Eden. We didn’t start using it in English until around the year 1200.

The Persian word pairidaeza means a walled garden, especially a beautifully maintained royal garden where the king would walk in the cool of the evening. The pairidaeza was held in such high regard that even the King of Persia would plant trees there himself and tend to the flowers.

So why did Luke use this unusual word when recounting the promise of Jesus to the Good Thief? We can’t know for sure, but it does offer some tantalizing insights.

You recall the story of how God discovered Adam and Eve had eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We read in the Book of Genesis that the Lord God was walking in the cool breeze of the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve hide from him.

The LORD God then called to the man and asked him, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself.” Then he asked, “Who told you that you were naked?” (Genesis 3:9-11)

Knowledge can be a heavy burden. When Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they did acquire knowledge they didn’t have before: a sense of self-awareness. But they did not acquire wisdom. Wisdom interprets knowledge thorough experience.

Adam and Eve had only been self-aware for a few hours and they did not have yet a life of experience. So the sudden burden of knowledge caused them to misunderstand. There was nothing wrong with their nakedness, but knowing they were naked made them fearful and worried, so that we are told they even made themselves clothes.

And don’t we sometimes do the same? Seeking to make sense of knowledge, we forget the wonder of our own lives. Knowledge without wisdom can be a terrible burden.

One of the ways we do this to ourselves is by piling up knowledge of rules and rituals as we attempt to sort out our relationship with God. So many times we fall into the trap of thinking that following rules and rituals will get us into a place called paradise when we die.

You probably know some people like this. They moan and groan about how difficult it is to follow the teachings of Jesus. They just suffer through life, grudgingly following rules, not doing things they really want to do, so they can get pie in the sky when they die. They’re unhappy and judgmental, and not very much fun to be around.

But is paradise only something we can experience after we die?

If you want to read a really great book that will get you thinking, consider picking up The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis. You’ve certainly heard of C. S. Lewis. He was one of the greatest writers on Christianity in the 20th Century.

The Great Divorce is an allegory. In it, Lewis tells a story of how he finds himself in The Gray City, a dark, ugly and dreary place, standing in a line. It turns out it is a line for a bus, and he boards the bus not knowing where it is going. He meets many unpleasant people on the bus: whiners, complainers, the holier-than-thou, show-offs.

As you read the book, it becomes gradually apparent that the Gray City is Hell and the destination of the bus is Heaven, depicted as a beautiful natural setting. Those who live in the Gray City are free at any time to make the journey if they so desire, and they are always free to return to the Gray City. Many never bother to take the trip, and many return to the Gray City because they just don’t like Heaven for various reasons.

We learn a lot about human nature as we see the various reasons why some people don’t like Heaven: pride, jealousy, selfishness, egotism, and so on. There in Heaven Lewis meets one of his favorite authors, George MacDonald, who serves as a sort of guide to him.

Lewis sees a joyful procession approaching, with people dancing and throwing flowers before a beautiful woman, who is obviously of great importance. He asks MacDonald who she is, and is told that she is one of the Great Ones. It turns out she was an ordinary, unknown person on Earth named Sarah Smith, but she lived with great joy and love, and all those dancing with her now were those she helped in her life. Even animals ran along her side; these are the animals she treated kindly. It was a vast throng who celebrated her.

Because, you see, she was not a bitter rule-follower. She began her paradise on earth; and she spread that joy to others.

Earlier Lewis has a conversation with MacDonald about what Heaven is and how those living in the Gray City can be transformed.

MacDonald explains: “Not only in this valley but all their earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved. Not only the twilight in that town, but all their life on Earth, too, will then be seen by the damned to have been Hell.”

“And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’ and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly,”

Behind us we have the gift of paradise that our first parents lost. Before us we have the gift of paradise that is promised when we die. And here on earth we have paradise promised to us as well, if only we will accept that gift.

The last thing we need are glum Christians who are eager to talk about everything they have sacrificed to follow the rules. What the world needs are joyful Christians who take the Gospel and make it their own. We all need to be free from rules so that we can live our lives in fidelity to what the rules represent.

We will take pleasure in feeding the poor, liturgy and prayer will become a treat rather than an obligation, we will be eager to forgive because it will liberate us, we will find joy in fidelity, delight in kindness, fulfillment in generosity. Consider the example of St. Therese of Lisieux, who said she was not going to worry about heaven; she would just love, and let God take care of the rest.

To the dying thief on the cross, Jesus gave the gift of hope, hope of happiness and joy. He offers us the same gift today. Take it now, he says, don’t wait till you die.

He whispers in our ear: Today, you can be with me in paradise.

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