The Last Words from the Cross: Day Two

Day One: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Day Two: “Verily, I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Day Three: “Woman, behold thy son! Behold, thy Mother!” (John 19:26-27)
Day Four: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
Day Five: “I Thirst.” (John 19:28)
Day Six: “It Is Finished,” (John 19:30)
Day Seven: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 26:46)

The second words that Christ speaks from the cross are to one of the thieves who is being crucified with him. The text comes from Luke, though Matthew (27:44) and Mark (15:27) also mentions the thieves. Luke reports a conversation between Jesus and the two malefactors:

And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:39-43)

In the Christian tradition, both of the thieves have names and stories. The Penitent Thief is called Dismas, and he is now a saint (as indeed he must be, since, by definition, a saint is someone who is known to be in heaven with Jesus). The Impentent Thief is named Gestas. And, according to legend, both Dismas and Gestas were guilty of attacking Joseph, Mary, and Jesus on their journey into Egypt three decades earlier.

According to the tradition, Dismas asks for spiritual salvation and is accepted into heaven. Gestas mocks Christ and demands temporal salvation and is not accepted into heaven. Presumably, he is in hell because that is what happens to unrepentant thieves who don’t ask Jesus for forgiveness with their last dying breath. The moral of the story is fairly simple: we are all of us thieves and unworthy of the Kingdom of God. Be the good thief and you will be saved.

I think that the standard interpretation is wrong in both its history and its theology, though it does seem to be an interpretation that at least Luke guides us towards when he includes the line “we receive the due reward of our deeds.” But there are a few reasons to push back.

First, it is not at all clear from the text that the people being crucified next to Christ are thieves or malefactors as the King James Bible claims that they are. The Greek word that Luke uses here is κακούργων, or kakoúrgos, which the KJV translates as “malefactor.” This word does indeed mean “criminal” or “ruffian” or perhaps “thug.” But Matthew and Mark use a form of the word λῃσταὶ (lēstai), which has a different constellation of meanings including “revolutionary” and “insurrectionist.”

I bring these shades of meaning up because they are important to understanding a historical fact: Rome did not crucify highway bandits and ordinary thieves. Crucifixion was an excruciatingly painful form of punishment, but it was also an expensive one. You had to have a cross. You had to have a whole team of soldiers. It took a long time. There were much easier ways to dispatch thieves. Crucifixion was a public spectacle reserved for enemies of the Roman state.

The people crucified next to Jesus were very likely charged with the same things that he was charged with: sedition, insurrection, rebellion—that sort of thing. The Christian tradition (including Luke) makes much of the difference between Christ and the common criminals. But this does not make historical sense. If the Romans crucified three people together after some kind of insurrection, then the chances are very good that all three were executed as participants in the insurrection. So, why are we so quick to assume that Rome was right to crucify the “thieves”?

When we are reading the story, it is important to notice who we are identifying with the most. When we assume that the two people crucified next to Christ were thieves who were being justly and legitimately punished for their crimes, we are identifying with the Roman government and assuming that, even though they had just committed the most egregious miscarriage of justice in the whole history of the world and sentenced the only perfect human to ever exist to a painful death, they must have gotten the other two right. If people are being punished, we imagine, they are usually guilty of something.

Of all those described as “the least of these”—a category that includes those who are impoverished, homeless, sick, imprisoned, immigrants, and refugees—those who have been condemned by the state are probably the ones that most people have the hardest time doing unto. We want the state to be right, and we want the prisoners to be bad because, we imagine, that makes the world safer.

I think we read Christ’s second words incorrectly when we try to mine them for theological revelations. What did the impenitent thief have to do to be saved? Is “Paradise” the same thing as heaven, or is Jesus telling us about some transitory state? What happens if we put the comma before “Today” and not after? The fierce debates over these issues have never moved me much. What moves me greatly is that, while he was on the cross, Christ acknowledged his connection to another person who was enduring the same agonizing pain that he was and tells him that they will also experience the same enduring joy in the Kingdom of God.

Comments

  1. It’s hard to picture theological debate while hanging on a cross dying from exhaustion and asphyxiation. The image has never worked for me. So I ask myself what a late addition to the story is intended to do, and come to think it’s all about shifting Jesus from a this-world revolutionary into the Lord of Heaven with the power of judgment and forgiveness. That’s an important shift, theologically and Christologically (is that a word?), for the authority of the church and the priests, and for a Holy Week contemplation. And for that, thanks for the OP.

    For myself, I am inspired more by the this-world revolutionary. Thinking of the two fellow sufferers as part of an insurrection is a valuable addition to my thinking.

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