by Br Julian McDonald cfc

One of the criminals hanging in crucifixion blasphemed Jesus: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Then save yourself and us.” But the other one rebuked him: “Have you no fear of God, seeing you are under the same sentence? We deserve it, after all. We are only paying the price for what we’ve done, but this man has done nothing wrong.” He then said: “Jesus, remember me when you enter upon your reign.” And Jesus replied: “I assure you: this day you will be with me in paradise.”   Luke 22,14 – 23, 56

In Luke’s account of the events leading up to and surrounding the Passion of Jesus, there are detailed descriptions of three crowd scenes in which many of the participants are carried on waves of high emotion. In describing Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem for the last time, Luke depicted him riding on the back of an ass, with the crowd of bystanders spreading their cloaks on the roadway in front of him. Whether or not those in the crowd recognised the significance of their actions, Luke saw it as the fulfilment of the prophecy of Zechariah: “See, your king shall come to you; a just saviour is he, meek and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass” (Zech 9, 9). Less than a week later, another crowd (Were some of their number from the previous crowd?) stood before Pilate braying for Jesus’ blood, after both Pilate and Herod had found no reason to condemn him to death. Luke highlights the irony of the situation by citing the name of the criminal the crowd preferred to Jesus – Bar Abbas (son of the father)! The third crowd, seemingly a majority of whom were women, lamented aloud for the one they had come to love. Luke underlines their presence by referring to them three times, reminding us that there are times when the only thing we can offer to those suffering around us is our presence. Of course, this description of the three crowds challenges each of us to reflect on whether there have been times in our lives when we have taken a place in more than one of those crowds.

As an entry point for reflecting on another part of today’s long gospel-reading, I invite you to read an imaginative piece contributed to Commonweal magazine back in 2008 by journalist and regular contributor, Peter Steinfels:

“One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’” (Luke 23, 39-43)

And so I was—and so I am. Luke may have patched my grammar and improved my wording. Nonetheless, he had the story right. That’s what I said, that’s what Jesus said. Believe me, I’m not complaining. But, I still feel uncomfortable about the misunderstanding of exactly what I did there, hanging on that cross, just minutes—it seemed like centuries—before dying.

I’m not talking about all the fanciful legends woven around my fifteen seconds of fame. Going down in history, for instance, as the Good Thief, when thief was hardly the word for it. We didn’t just rob. We assaulted, we murdered. We weren’t just thieves. We were bandits, brigands, outlaws, and cutthroats. Revolutionaries, too—or so we liked to think. When your country is occupied, you can justify about anything.

Being whitewashed as a Good Thief was the least of it. Imaginative folks eventually made-up names for me, Joathas or Dismas, the good guy on the right, and Maggatras or Gestas for the bad guy on the left. They concocted stories. It was told that as adults or maybe even as children we had crossed paths with Jesus.

But none of that had anything to do with what was written in the Gospels and especially in Luke. As I said, he had the words more or less right. It’s the interpretation that’s a problem.

Get the picture, please. We’re beaten, bloodied, and gasping for breath. People are jeering at this guy in the middle. It seems he has called himself the messiah or saviour or king of the Jews, something like that. They put an inscription, “King of the Jews,” over his head. So show your stuff, they shout. Then my fellow outlaw joins in.

I tell you the truth. I had never heard of Jesus. Of messiahs, of restored kingdoms, of Davidic kings—that was different. All my life, I had heard such talk. But Jesus? He must have created a stir, gained a following, angered the authorities. Why else would he be bleeding and choking to death here between us? Beyond that, I knew nothing.

Was he the messiah, was he king of the Jews, did he have a kingdom? Or was he a poor fool? Did it matter?

When my mother was dying, I knelt next to her. She would close and open her eyes. “I see Elisha,” she would say. “I see a chariot without a horse. I see streams of water.”

“Yes, mother,” I would answer. “I think Elisha is coming. Yes, there is a horse. Yes, there are streams of water.” Did it matter?

So when the crowds jeered at this dying man and the soldiers did, too, and my comrade in crime thinks he is honouring his last minutes by adding to their taunts, well, I just couldn’t help myself.

“Jesus,” I said, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Maybe that would comfort him, dull the pain, combat the despair. Really, I didn’t know.

People have thought that I was making a great confession of faith. They have said that I knew in a flash all that this man I’d never seen before had been endlessly preaching and explaining to his followers. It wasn’t like that at all.

Read Luke’s words carefully and you’ll see. It was no act of faith. It was just a bit of decency. It won me paradise all the same.”

Isn’t it true that every act of decency we do somehow reflects Jesus and the Gospel?