Thursday, March 25, 2010

Reflections on the Wise Thief

We are fast approaching the liturgical celebration of our Lord's Passion and Crucifixion, which will lead up to the Resurrection and the means of our salvation. I thought, therefore, it might be best to meditate on one of the most remarkable moments of Good Friday, on that fateful day on Calvary.
Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” [Luke 23:39-43; NKJV]
It is recorded among all four gospels that Jesus was crucified between two thieves also condemned to die that day. The crowd gathered there was gleefully mocking their God, and Matthew and Mark both record that, initially, the thieves joined in their mockery. Yet as Luke shows, something happened - one of the thieves switched gears.

The Church Fathers teach us that the Wise Thief did mock Christ at first, but later repented. Why was this? Perhaps we might never be quite sure. It could be that the Wise Thief was won over at the utterance of our Lord's words, "Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do." Perhaps it was the sight of our Lord's compassion to His mother and beloved disciple John. Perhaps the thief recognized the words "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" and knew from where those words came (Psalm 22:1). It could have been all of the above, or it could have been none - it could have simply been a unilateral action of God's grace. In any case, we know that by God's grace the Wise Thief's heart was moved, and moved towards repentance.

So we come to Luke's account, halfway through the crucifixion. One of the thieves crucified alongside Jesus repeats the mockery of the crowd: "If you are the Christ, save yourself." To this command, however, he adds: "...and us!" It wasn't enough that Jesus had to step down from the cross to prove His Messianic status, but now He also had to save the two thieves! Why was this? Selfishness: man is always thinking of how to get out of a jam through his own means. He never wants to embrace what little he has; he only wants a way out of it. We want instant pleasure. So the ungrateful thief, despite having been found guilty of a crime we know he committed, wants a way out of his punishment.

One can identify much evil in his words, for he tells Jesus, "If you are the Christ." This is an echo of the words of the crowd, but they are also echoes of words found much earlier in Luke's gospel. As Christ was fasting and praying in the desert, the devil suddenly appeared and began his temptation with these words: "If you are the Son of God..." (Luke 4:3). The very first temptation mankind ever suffered was doubt, for the snake in Eden asked Eve, "Did God actually say..." (Gen 3:1), and so it is very fitting that the first real temptation of Christ would be similar. Now, just as the devil tempted Christ with doubt in the desert, he tempts Him here on the cross through influence on weak individuals. It is therefore certain to say that the concept of the movie The Last Temptation of Christ is a silly one, as Christ was tempted on the cross but rejected it. Christ would not remove Himself from the cross, but endure it to the end so that, as Luke later records, "repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations" (Luke 24:47).

Now pipes in the Wise Thief. In response to this blasphemy, the Thief does what no one has done during the entire narrative of the Passion of our Lord: he defends Jesus. "Do you not even fear God," he asks, "seeing you are under the same condemnation?" He asked this because he rightly identified that they had all been accused to die equally horrible deaths, although their crimes had been different. He explains this next when he states, "we indeed [are punished] justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong." In this manner he identifies something the first thief did not: that they are sinners, criminals and scoundrels, and that they deserve the punishment they are given.

What had been Christ's crime? That they should love one another as He loves them. It was legally a menial crime at best, but in the eyes of a corrupt and sinful world a grave error that deserved death. Nonetheless, it is not a crime that should number you among thieves and robbers, as the Romans had done with Christ.

The Wise Thief is given his title because he was wise enough to discern this. He identified rightly what was going on, and he knew that there was more here than an execution. He recognized that before Him was not just any man, but the Son of Man, also the Son of God. The Wise Thief recognized that Christ did not have to be there, and yet He had allowed Himself to be numbered between them. In some ways, Christ was the odd man out, for he was the only innocent one on all three crosses - but in other ways, too, the thieves were the odd ones out, because it was not by their death and resurrection that mankind would be saved. They were not worthy to be in such presence, and yet Christ had come to be in their presence by His own accord.

So now, finished reprimanding his fellow transgressor, the Wise Thief turns his focus to our Lord. He does not ask for freedom, wealth, or a high position. He only makes one small request...

"Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom."

We can rightfully consider this statement a prayer, and a wonderful prayer at that. It should be the only prayer on the lips of every Christian. The Wise Thief does, in a way, ask for Christ to save him from the cross, but not in the same manner as the other thief. The other thief was stuck in the world, and only thought of the world, and so when he sought freedom he sought it from the execution, so that he may enjoy worldly life just a little bit more. The Wise Thief instead seeks freedom from the world entirely. He seeks freedom from the cross not for freedom from the execution, but rather freedom from what the cross meant: death and eternal humiliation.

When Christ made the statement from the cross, "Father, forgive them..." He embodied the very meaning of the cross to the believer. This scene, in a similar manner, embodies the forgiveness and love shown to those who love Him. Both thieves had Divine Truth in their midst, and yet only one chose to embrace it. For this reason his sins were forgiven, and he was reconciled before God through the cross (Eph 2:16) "having made peace through the blood of His cross" (Col 1:20). Out of repentance, like the prodigal son returning to his father, all sins the Wise Thief had committed were wiped clean, for they were left on the cross upon which he died (Col 2:14). The only thing taken with him to paradise was Christ's memory of him - the only thing he had asked for.

Truly, no moment in scripture brings tears to my eyes nearly as much as this one. The Wise Thief embodies every necessary trait for the believer: self-discernment, endurance of trials, confession, and repentance. Sometimes I recall this story in my mind, and I feel tears come from my heart. I feel tears come for the show of mercy our Lord has on sinners who come to Him. Then I realize that I am not as repentant as the Wise Thief, and tears come to my eyes as I ask our Lord to give me just a little of the humility that the Thief showed.

There is an ancient church hymn in which the angels at the gates of heaven ask the Thief, "How did you steal your way into paradise?" May this be the only theft any of us are guilty of.