Who Am I?
For the past several years between Lent and Easter, I’ve contemplated the scene of the two thieves hanging on their crosses on either side of Jesus (Luke 23:39-43). Sometimes, I am Dismas, the good and penitent thief. Other times, I am the thief impenitent, who to this day remains unnamed. Like him, I hurl insults at Jesus because I am choking to death on God’s will. I don’t want to share in Jesus’s sufferings. I want off of my cross. I don’t want to mortify my flesh or surrender my agenda for how I think my kingdom life should turn out. I want to call the shots. When it comes down to it, I don’t want to die. I forget that death is necessary if there is to be resurrection.
And so today is the Friday Christians call ‘good’. Though right now, I cannot see what good will come of it. I hang on the cross alongside Jesus. I labor for tiniest breaths of life. For just one more moment, I want to hold on to everything that I’ve known. I’m terrified by the inevitable: death. I know that I’ll slip into it or be shoved into it by a soldier’s cruel club or spear. I’ll enter the unknown and my life will never be the same again.
I’ve never been so scared in my life. I don’t want to die.
The Good Thief
I know I deserve to be on this cross. My sins put me here. But lately, I’ve been thinking about how the sins of other religious people, other Christians, have put me here, too. All too eagerly, it seems, they drive in several more nails. Sometimes it is other Christians, those who claim to believe in the gospel of life, who viciously and without restraint crucify their own. From what I can tell, they truly believe they are purifying the Church through my undoing and the undoing of others. Anyone who does not look like them, vote like them, worship Jesus like them, or believe in Jesus precisely as they do is the ‘other’: a false prophet and false teacher. From my perspective, they’ve played the part of barbarous Roman soldiers and smug Pharisees—so confident in their use of power on God’s behalf and in their self-righteousness. They use what turn out to be godless means to achieve what they take to be God’s ends. They forget that God cares about both the means and the ends in our lives. They’re on a crusade to separate the wheat from the tares though Jesus told us that we are not to attempt to pull out the tares because we might very well pull out wheat. At this point, and in spite of our self-assured foot-stomping protests to the contrary, it can be hard to tell which is which. In the last day, it will be the angels who do God’s bidding in separating the wheat from the tares. (See Matt. 13:24-43).
My brothers and sisters slander and denounce and publicly excommunicate their own. This crucifixion that I am a part of, it’s a mass crucifixion. There are many other believers hanging alongside of me, with nails driven through them by the hands of other Christians. My body burns. Pain like lightning shoots all over as I muster what strength remains in order to shift my gaze to Jesus. I look to the side and see him. When I look away from him, I want to do to them what they are doing to others and to me. I look to Jesus again and I feel a deep conviction that I must love my brothers and sisters. Looking at him I find that I am somehow able to faintly utter “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” I look to Jesus and before I realize what I am doing, I mouth these barely audible words, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He hears me. He hears me! And then he turns and whispers, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” I now have hope in this excruciating death. I will not be slipping into the complete unknown. Though I know not what paradise is like, I know I’ll be with him in my next waking moment. Peace ushers me into death. O happy death.
The Thief Impenitent
It’s Good Friday. I hang on the cross alongside Jesus. I know my sins have put me here. But I can justify my actions. Right now though, I’m angry and bitter because many of these nails were sanctimoniously hammered in by fellow Christians. I look beside me and I see Jesus. I’m outraged. I scream at Jesus. “Jesus, it’s not fair. They’re your children and they’re getting away with murder. Get us down from here. Don’t you see what they are doing to us? I don’t deserve to be here and neither do you.” I continue to rage as a raven pecks at my face. “Jesus! Get us down. Call down the fire and brimstone upon their heads, the same fire and brimstone that they are calling down upon us.”
I am livid with Jesus. I am resisting the love, grace, and mercy that is trying to invade my soul. I want retaliation. I want an eye for an eye. No, I want more than that: I want both eyes and several limbs from them. I’ve done evil but they’re worse. They’ve done much to hurt lots of us in the body. I pigeonhole them, doing what they’ve done to me. I only see them as those who travel land and sea to make a single convert and then make their converts twice as much the children of hell as they are. (See Matt. 23:15.) That’s all I see in them and nothing else. They are the children of hell doing Satan’s bidding, not me. If I had the chance, I’d do what they are doing to me and to so many others; I’d crucify them, Bible in hand.
All of us who follow Jesus are called to take up our crosses and to follow him daily. And several times throughout our lives, we’ll be called to die—to hang on our crosses alongside him. This year I hang on my cross alongside Jesus as I seek to put to death the prejudice in me against other believers (my sins)—especially those who have harmed me and other brothers and sisters. I am trying hard not to pigeonhole them. Trying hard not to dehumanize them or to retaliate by returning their insults. Otherwise, I’ll become just like them. For me, loving them and going the Jesus way requires death to my natural inclinations.
The idea of taking up our crosses and dying to ourselves is noble; but when it comes to actually doing it, to submitting myself to necessary death, I often fight it tooth and nail. And so on Good Friday I am reminded that, on occasion, I am Dismas, the good thief. But I am also reminded that I am the impenitent thief hurling insults at Jesus much more often than I care to admit.