Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.
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.’
Matthew 23:32-33, 39-42
Sometimes I wonder which criminal I am. There are only two to choose from—well maybe three if you count Barabbas, but I don’t think I have it in me to be a murderer—two thieves that hang on crosses next to Jesus: one on his right and one on his left. Even through what had to be insurmountable and long suffering agony they have one of the most important conversations in human history. Think about it—these two men, thieves, are the last people to talk to Jesus and their words and attitude have a lot to say about humanity.
The first criminal “derides” Jesus. He laughs at him, mocks him, jeers at him just as all the people did at the trial, on the road to Golgotha during the world’s worst parade—three men, their crosses, an innocent bystander, and the police escort—and even now as they are nailed to a cross and left to die this slow agonizing death. I don’t know what this first criminal was thinking, but if I were he, I can see how I would easily be seduced by the crowd to jeer someone else’s pain rather than face my own suffering. Some days it is just too hard to face my mistakes, my imperfections, the poor choices I make in an attempt to vent my own anger or find release from the anxieties and stresses of my daily life that hold me captive in a prison of my own making, a prison I am not willing to assume responsibility for. Maybe that is what the cross is for this prisoner—a punishment of his own making. To die in this way because of thievery seems a bit harsh but it is the consequence of his own free choices. And that leads me into a second possible motivation for his words.
We are a vindictive people. We like it when others “get what they deserve” or are “served their just desserts.” It makes us feel better when we are vindicated in some way. One of my favorite Eddie Murphy stand up bits from the 80s was about how children from an early age express their own sense of vindication. Eddie Murphy tells how the ice cream truck used to come down the street in his neighborhood when he was a boy. How you could hear the tinkling of the music from a long way off—you couldn’t hear your mother calling your name from two houses away, but you could sure hear that truck from ten blocks away. And how you would race to the house yelling for your mom to give you some money so you could race down the street trying to get the ice cream truck to stop, all your friends hot on your heels with their own money. Eddie Murphy goes on to say that once he finally got his ice cream, it wasn’t enough to just eat it, he would start singing about his ice cream, “I have some ice cream. I’m gonna eat it all.” But even that wasn’t enough, to really enjoy that ice cream he had to distinguish himself from any kid that didn’t have ice cream. He would start taunting the poor kids who had joined in the excitement but couldn’t afford to buy any ice cream. He would hold his cone out and start singing, “You don’t have no ice cream. You didn’t get none. Cause you can’t afford it. You want to eat some of my ice cream? Wanna lick? Psych.” And then, he drops his ice cream. And after a pause, the other kid begins to sing, “You dropped your ice cream. You dropped your ice cream.” Vindication.
Jesus didn’t taunt the first thief and he is not the one looking for vindication. But maybe the thief is—maybe his taunts are about how poverty has led him down this path of self-destruction and where was Jesus when he was hungry and needed food or naked and needed clothes or in prison and needed companionship. For all Jesus’ talk, the world hadn’t changed—he still needed bread to live on and in his desperation had taken that which was not his and now faced the same consequences had he starved slowly to death. Is this what “Blessed are those who hunger for they will be filled with good things,” means Jesus? Or “Blessed are the poor for yours is the Kingdom of God.” What kind of kingdom is this that hangs us on a cross? Will your pithy sayings not save even yourself much less us? That’s what I thought—maybe now you know what it feels like to be poor and powerless.
Or maybe the thief is simply scared and trying to hold a brave face by assuming power he clearly does not have. We do that, in the face of powerless situations when we are at the mercy of someone or something else, we find the one who is weaker than us and self-differentiate in order to have even a shallow and false sense of security. When our fate is sealed, our darkness exposed, we do everything in our power to shift the focus from ourselves onto another—“If you are the Messiah, save yourself”: instead of owning our own fault and guilt. But even in that moment, there is a spark of hope in the powerless criminal that somehow this could end differently, “and us.” It is a pitiable moment—a moment in which the selfish and broken nature of our personality is exposed: a moment in which the tension between our false sense of strength and pride and the true nature of our human frailty is exposed. Maybe that is why the first criminal disgusts us so—he exposes the darkness deep within each of us—the truths about our personalities we would rather not come to light.
So, instead, we put our hope in the second criminal—the one we would wish to emulate; the one who is self-effacing, honest and humble. He rebukes the first criminal, recognizing that he is certainly no better than Jesus and that surely they are more guilty and deserving of this punishment since Jesus has done nothing wrong. And in his confession of guilt; his confession of the broken man that he is; his confession of all the wrong deeds and actions of his life—he finds peace, the peace which passes all understanding. Are we capable of that—are we capable of confessing the deep sins and wickedness buried in the shadows of our being? Are we capable of being honest with ourselves much less Jesus? And then are we willing to take the risk and tell the truth about who we are exposing our darkness and doubt, admitting our defeats and sufferings, being honest about our claim on life—that we are not people who have it all together, that we make mistakes sometimes big one—that we are not independent and self-sufficient and instead need one another. Because if we can do that, if we can tell the truth about who we are to ourselves and to God we can begin to find healing in the midst of our pain.
The second criminal also makes a request of Jesus. It is not the desperate cry for help, “Save yourself and us,” that we hear from the first one. The second criminal’s request comes from a different place; a place that is no longer desperate but at peace; a place that no longer denies suffering but accepts that he is saved through his suffering, not from it. And in that moment of clarity—after he has confessed the truth of who he is and found peace, only then can he request the salvation he has already been granted on that cross, the salvation we are all granted—the promise of paradise. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Palm Sunday Year C
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, April 14, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer