PALM SUNDAY — 24 March 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls – 9:15 am
Luke 19:28-40 | Psalm 118:1-2,19-29
Isaiah 50:4-9a | Psalm 31:9-16 | Philippians 2:5-11 | Luke 22:39-23:49
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.”
The story of the penitent thief is unique to St. Luke’s Gospel. The other three Gospels do not mention it, although they do all record that Jesus was crucified with two other men. That all four Gospels mention this is a pretty clear indication that the triple crucifixion at Golgotha that day comes from very early tradition, i.e., there’s no reason to think it didn’t actually happen that way. But only St. Luke tells of the penitent thief. Is it possible that Luke knew something, had access to a story, which the other evangelists did not? Sure. Is that likely? Well…. Luke, like the other three evangelists, and also like Hellenistic historians generally, is certainly willing to tell a story to make a theological point. So what’s up with this story?
First of all, in this story, we have over the ages easily slipped into thinking that this is about a penitent thief (for whom we invented the name “Dismas” along about the fourth century) and his colleague, an impenitent thief. Well, that’s not what the Gospel says, and certainly not what it means. These two guys may well have been thieves, but that’s really incidental. They weren’t being crucified for mere thievery. The Romans couldn’t be bothered with petty crimes. They would have left that up to the local Jewish authorities, who would indeed have dealt with them. Crucifixion was the penalty for political offenses, and was reserved – to the extent that the Romans were ever “reserved” about crucifying people – for major threats to the Pax Romanum when the Romans wanted to make a public point. So it’s probably safe to assume that these two guys were anti-Roman revolutionaries. Today we might call them terrorists.
Matthew and Mark call them by a word that today we often translate as “bandit” [lêistês], although we should understand that as having clear political overtones. Luke uses a simple Greek word [kakourgos] that means literally “evil-doer,” and today’s translation as “criminal” isn’t far off. (St. John just calls them “the other two guys.”) Now here’s a pure speculation, but maybe I’m right: A little earlier in St. Mark’s version of the story, Mark writes, “Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection.” Barabbas, of course, was released by Pilate at the instigation of the high priests’ claque, but it may be that the other rebels with him may have been these two guys who were now being crucified together with Jesus. This leaves us with the picture of three Jewish insurgents being marched out to Golgotha for crucifixion, except that as a substitute for their leader Barabbas, instead we see the prophet Jesus of Nazareth. That may be worth some meditation.
Remember that these two guys aren’t just crooks. If C-4 had been invented in those days, one can well imagine them strapping some around their waists and walking into the Roman barracks in the Antonia fortress. But as it was, whatever they did, they got caught at it. And I think the only thing they were really sorry about was that they got caught. These two saw themselves as patriots, as Jewish freedom fighters. Already full of years of anger about the oppression of their people, they are now enraged by their own failure. Presumably they knew, or at least had some vague idea, of who this Jesus of Nazareth was. They may even have hoped that he would be one of them, that if he was indeed the Messiah he would lead a popular uprising to restore the independence of Israel. But obviously not. “So, ‘Messiah,’ if that’s who say you are, wouldn’t now be a good time to get on with it, and save us in the process!”
But, says St. Luke, the second guy has a deeper perception.
(Please forgive me for a brief digression here: Luke is writing, probably, towards the end of the first century, well after the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman legions in 70. He is also writing, probably, to a Gentile or predominantly Gentile Christian readership, likely in Greece or maybe even in Rome (including his dedicatee Theophilus). The Jewish war of independence is many years past. The Jews lost. The Romans won. Get over it. Many of the political dimensions of the proclamation of the Kingdom of God that were still live issues when St. Mark’s Gospel was being written are now dead embers best not stirred up. Therefore the two insurrectionists crucified with Jesus are now depoliticized as just “criminals,” “malefactors,” "evildoers," as indeed also is Barabbas in a brief earlier reference. We might keep that in mind as we reflect on the man we call the “penitent thief.” End of digression.)
“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.” Thus says the second guy. But let’s consider. In the event, “fearing God’ is not really likely to have been at issue. These guys ended up on Roman crosses precisely because they “feared God,” or at least that’s what they thought they were doing. Their hero was Judas Maccabeus, after all. They didn’t think their condemnation was at all just, nor did they deserve it. They just had the bad luck to have been caught by the Romans. The worst-case scenario for them would have been that God had abandoned them; they too like Jesus could have quoted the opening verse of Psalm 22. “This man has done nothing wrong”? According to whom? In Luke’s account, after Jesus dies the Roman centurion says, “Certainly this man was innocent.” No he wasn’t! The sign over his head said “The King of the Jews,” and that was treason, and then some: Jesus in fact is the King of the World, and Caesar wasn’t having any of that! In St. Mark’s earlier version, you may remember, the centurion says, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Or as John Wayne put it, “Truly this man was the Son o’ God!”) That was not so much a Christological statement as it was the recognition that after all, this Jesus is Lord, and therefore Caesar isn’t. A significantly gutsy remark in the mouth of a Roman centurion, even John Wayne! But within a Roman context, Luke can’t exactly put it that way. He has to appeal to the Roman sense of justice (never mind that “Roman justice” is part of the problem!). But I think Luke hints at it pretty broadly when he has the second insurgent say. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He’s not, I think, being ironic. This fellow actually does repent. But his confession is not so much “I’ve been a bad guy,” but “I’ve been wrong about the Kingdom of God. We thought we could restore God’s Kingdom to Israel by violence, but that was a huge mistake. Now I finally see who God’s Anointed One really is – the one who brings good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, God’s justice to the oppressed. [Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-2] I finally get it about your true Kingdom; Jesus, remember me when it comes!” And Jesus replies, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
By the way, I don’t think Jesus means, “I’m going to take you to Heaven with me in a few minutes when we die.” “Paradise” is a Greek (originally a Persian) word for “garden,” God’s garden, where God’s faithful people await the fullness of the Kingdom in the resurrection. It seems to me that what Jesus is getting at here is to assure his fellow, “God’s Kingdom which I have proclaimed and enacted, and even in this very moment am proclaiming and enacting – this Kingdom is not just yet to come sometime in the future, but in an important sense is coming and is here right now, and you are with me beginning here and now sharing in and awaiting the fullness of the victory of this Kingdom, for which you have longed so fervently if not so wisely.”
Many years ago, a colleague and friend of mine made this statement about Palm Sunday, and Holy Week, and it has always stuck with me: “It begins with a defeat that looks for all the world like a victory, [and] moves on to a victory that appears to everyone to be a defeat.” St. Luke understood what was defeat and what was victory, and he shares this with us in the Palm Gospel and the Passion Gospel today.