The rulers sneered at Jesus and said, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.” Even the soldiers jeered at him. As they approached to offer him wine they called out, “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.” Above him there was an inscription that read, “This is the King of the Jews.”
Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ?
Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”–Luke 23:35-43
Today’s Gospel is a powerful scene from the passion narrative, because it sums up quite perfectly two very distinct takes on the crucifixion of Jesus. Through one of the last human encounters with Jesus before he died, we are presented with a very real scenario for our own lives and our faith in Christ.
Scripture tells of two men sentenced to death as criminals, one on either side of Jesus as he died. We read that their sentence, as the good thief says, fit their crimes. Crucifixion was one of the most disgraceful forms of execution, reserved primarily for the vilest criminals, so we know that whatever they had done, it was enough at that time to warrant such an extreme punishment. Yet everything we know about who Jesus was reveals that he was anything but vile. He was good: he healed, and he loved people (especially the weak and sinful) with a merciful heart that only our God could. He was as innocent as could be, and his goodness lead to his passion and death.
The rulers and soldiers who persecuted Jesus didn’t want to hear what he had to say nor did they want to open their hearts to the reality of who he was and who they were in his eyes. Rather, they chose to scoff at him, call him a liar and a lunatic, and ultimately condemn him to death.
And here we see in this scene how Jesus, mocked all the way to the point of his death, is once again poked and prodded. One of the thieves yells at him, “Are not you the Christ? Save yourself and us,” and through his words, the criminal offers him one final condemnation.
His words summed up the feelings of all those who persecuted Jesus, because he was really saying: “You think you’re so great. You think you are God. Ha! You are nothing but a criminal like me, put to an awful and heinous death. How can you help me, a sinner—look at yourself!” In the end, all that Jesus claimed and proved himself to be, failed in the face of evil and death.
At least in the eyes of the criminal.
What a sad depiction of humanity’s continuous response to God. Just as the Israelites in the wilderness fell into fear, anger, and despair in their moments of suffering and pain—so here we see man failing to see God’s love through Jesus in these last moments. Here we see one final attempt of sin, wickedness, and pride pummeling one of the very foundational aspects of faith in God: hope.
Imagine if the story ended with his words.
Yet, hope and goodness prevail in the perspective that the other thief—the good thief—takes on the suffering Christ. Immediately upon hearing his fellow criminal’s words, the good thief rebukes him, saying:
“Have you no fear of God,
for you are subject to the same condemnation?
And indeed, we have been condemned justly,
for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes,
but this man has done nothing criminal.”
As the good thief hung on the wood, he recognized completely the very thing the other failed to see: the far reach of God’s love. God’s love, through Jesus, reaches into the depths of humanity, from his entering into salvation history as the promised one in the form of a little baby, all the way to his death on the cross. He entered into humanity, and though innocent, paid the price we could not pay, out of love for us.
Out of all of those who encountered Christ’s mercy firsthand, I think the good thief was given a special understanding of God’s great love for humanity. He didn’t need the countless miracles of Christ to convince him of this love; he witnessed firsthand the extent of God’s love. Unlike the other thief, the good thief humbled himself enough to look directly into the broken and battered face of Christ, see his own weakness and sinfulness, and recognize the very reason our Lord was lead to such a terrible death. A criminal did not hang on that cross and die that day, love itself hung there—the kind of love that pours itself out completely for the sake of the beloved.
Jesus’ death on the cross was not a chance happening but rather was divinely chosen as part of God’s plan to bring about redemption for mankind. The crucifixion was not something he had to do, but something he rather chose to do. What the criminal failed to see as he hung next to the innocent Jesus on the cross, was that God permitted Jesus’ crucifixion, and Jesus freely chose it.
Could he have destroyed his persecutors and sent all against him trembling in his path? Of course. Could he have chosen a different way to bring about salvation for man? Certainly. Yet, just as he condescended to our human nature by becoming a weak and dependent human baby, he condescended to our human nature by dying a physical and horrible death. As both fully human and divine, Jesus paid the ultimate price in expiation for all the sins of human kind and fulfilled the covenantal promises made from long ago.
Throughout Scripture we see that sacrificial death was both important and necessary in order to redeem man and save him from his sin that continuously led him into destruction and away from God. Yet, no matter how sweet the offering, finite man could not redeem himself with a finite offering. Jesus didn’t die merely to satisfy the wrath of God, but rather—through his divinity—swung wide the doors for us that lead to communion with God so that we may access his everlasting love. All the sin and wickedness that entered the world time and time again through man’s own sinfulness, pride, and unwillingness to surrender himself to the Almighty God, was offered up through Jesus’ divine intercession in and through his passion, death, and resurrection. Without it, we could not share in the divine life of God. What the criminal failed to see was that Jesus was saving him. By entering into the depth of human suffering, Jesus took on all that was sinful in the world and offered it back to God in the sweetest offering in the history of mankind. And all the criminal had to do to receive the Lord’s favor, like the good one, was repent; to face the ugliness of death—his spiritual death caused by his own sin—and humbly cry out for Jesus to remember him.
This scene in the passion narrative is so powerful for us today because it calls us, too, to make a choice. We can humble ourselves and examine our actions, repent of all that we choose that is contrary to God’s will and his goodness, and place our trust in a God who loves us to an extent that is beyond our comprehension. In doing so, we receive the goodness of his love and presence here and now. Or, we can turn a blind eye to the ugliness in our own life that hung our Lord to the cross that day, and reject his divine offering.
Sin is ugly and gruesome, and our instinct (much like the criminal’s) is to hide from it and turn a blind eye to it. We stamp our feet demanding that the Lord save us as we simultaneously rest in our sin and take it for our own, clutching the very things that burden and enslave us. We go on living in this manner, and jeer at him when we end up unhappy, burdened, and enslaved. But the Lord God wants to free us of all of that. He wants to transform the ugliness of our own lives (our sinfulness, our weaknesses, and especially our pain), and in conjunction with his own offering, help us rise to new life with him.
So we are called to make the choice: Will we look the ugliness of our sin—the sin that nailed our Lord to the cross—head on and repent, remembering the Lord’s profound love for us; or will we continue to turn a blind eye to him, mocking him as we lead lives so contrary to his love and goodness?
We have to make the choice.