Gospel: Luke 23:35-43
Help in the Darkest Hour
Have you ever received help in the hour of despair? What happened?
Have you ever felt that the world has turned on you? In these times of despair, were you able to help someone else in need? In this feast of Christ the King, Jesus shows us one can help others even in the darkest hour. When death stared him in the face, Jesus reached out to forgive another.
35 (After Jesus was crucified,) people stood there and watched what was happening. The leaders kept insulting Jesus. "He saved other people," the leaders sneered. "Let him save himself if he's really God's Messiah, the Chosen One!" 36 The soldiers also made fun of Jesus when they came up to him and offered him a drink of bitter wine. "If you're the King of the Jews," the soldiers taunted Jesus, "save yourself!" 38 There was a notice of the crime Jesus had been charged with. It read, "This man is the King of the Jews."
39 One of the men crucified with Jesus mocked him. "So, aren't you the Christ?" the man said in a sneer. "Save yourself and us!"
40 "Don't you have any respect for God?" the other man shot back. "We've all condemned to death. 41 You and I got a just sentence. After all, we did so many bad things that we deserve to die. But this man didn't do anything wrong!" 42 "Jesus," the man continued, "remember me with kindness when your reign comes."
43 "Listen!" Jesus replied. "Today you will be with me and God."
Luke presented two opposing images in these brief passages: shame and glory. The soldiers and a thief belittled the Lord. But another thief reached out in faith, thereby recognizing his glory.
35 The people stood (there), watching (the spectacle). The leaders were insulting (HIM) as well, saying, "He saved others. Let him save himself if this ('man') is the Christ of God, the Chosen!" 36 The soldiers mocked HIM, approaching (HIM), offering HIM vinegary wine, 37 and saying "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself." 38 There was a notice above HIM: "This (MAN) is the King of the Jews."
39 One of the criminals having been hung (on a cross) blasphemed HIM, saying, "Are YOU not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" 40 Having answered, the other rebuking him said, "Do you not fear God since you are under the same judgment (as we are)?" 41 Indeed, we (were treated) justly, for we received in the (same way) as what we did. But this (ONE) did nothing improper." 42 He said, "Jesus, remember me (kindly) when you come into your reign." 43 HE said to him, "Amen I say to you. Today you will be with me in paradise."
23:41 "(same way)" is literally "(same) worth." The "good thief" insisted he and the other criminal had received the same way they had taken. In other words, they were dying in shame because they lived shameful lives.
23:42 "Jesus, remember me (kindly) when you come into your reign." The "good thief" was asking for mercy in the Final Judgment. He acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah and his function as Daniel's "Son of Man" who would come on the clouds as a judge.
23:43 "Today you will be with me in paradise." In the context of the conversation, Jesus was not referring to "today" as an immediate vision of paradise (i.e., heaven). He was speaking of an "eschatological" day (in the same sense God created the cosmos in seven days), the day of judgment. The day of crucifixion was the day of judgment, for the cross was the revelation of Jesus' reign. Those who believed would be saved on the day of crucifixion. In this sense, the "good thief" did not have to wait until Jesus came in glory. He was in his glory. And the thief was saved at that moment.
The scene opened as Jesus hung from the cross between two condemned criminals. Jesus had uttered his famous forgiveness ("Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do") and his last possessions (i.e., his clothing) had been gambled away by the guards. Jesus had nothing to look forward to but death.
Open and vulnerable on the cross, the taunting began, as the people watched in silent contempt (see 23:36a). First, the leaders challenged Jesus to save his own life, if he were indeed God's Chosen. Then, the soldiers mocked him with a bitter drink, vinegar; they, too, challenged him to come down from the cross if he were a king. [23:36-37] Both challenges responded to the charge over Jesus' head, "This is the King of the Jews." [23:38]
The charge placard on the cross reflected official disdain on many levels. Since Judea was ruled by a Roman governor, anyone claiming to be king was seen as a revolutionary. The Jewish leaders rejected someone of low status with such high ambitions; to be ruled by a poor Galilean would be the height of absurdity. For these reasons and more, the soldiers could not serve such a nobody. Naturally, they would reject a poor rabbi from the country who shook up the status quo.
The charge above the cross also bridged the distain of the crowd with the story of the two thieves. Both appealed for mercy. One thief appealed from self-centered despair. Devoid of hope, this criminal chimed with the leaders and the soldiers; "if you can save yourself, save us, too." His negative attitude answered his own question: "NO!" [23:39]
But the other thief saw things differently. The "good" thief acknowledged he and the other criminal were rightly condemned for their acts by legitimate authority. But Jesus was unjustly condemned (by an authority which had no jurisdiction over him?). [23:40-41]
Since the "good" thief did not condemn Jesus, he could respond with tiniest grain of faith. This thief made a conscious decision to reject the world's disdain and reach out for mercy. "Remember me (kindly) when you come into kingdom (i.e, kingly power)." [23:42] Here, the thief believed that 1) Jesus would survive death and achieve kingly power, 2) his kingly power was not of the world, 3) the thief would survive death through the gracious memory of the King, Jesus. (Remember that reputation was the highest value in the time of Jesus; to be remembered graciously insured the retelling of one's life from generation to generation. In a story telling society, the one conveying the story was obliged to bring the characters of the story "alive," so their spirit would breathe into the retelling. In a way, the thief would survive death.) With nothing left to lose, the "good" thief made a leap of faith in the closing moments of his life. In one short statement, this thief believed in the Good News; he wanted to be saved (in the living memory) by a risen Jesus.
Jesus, however, gave the "good" thief a greater gift, eternal life. And eternal life began on that day, at that moment, with no hesitation ("Amen, I tell you...). As the good thief reached out in faith, he received complete assurance from the Lord. The thief would live! [23:43]
Catechism of the Catholic Church: The Particular Judgement
1021 Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ. The New Testament speaks of judgment primarily in its aspect of the final encounter with Christ in his second coming, but also repeatedly affirms that each will be rewarded immediately after death in accordance with his works and faith. The parable of the poor man Lazarus and the words of Christ on the cross to the good thief, as well as other New Testament texts speak of a final destiny of the soul, a destiny which can be different for some than for others.
Is death an end or an opportunity? The story of the "good" thief shows us his leap of faith; it also shows us Christ's willingness to help up to the very end. Both the thief and Jesus show an openness to each other that turned death into an opportunity.
The immediate judgement of the person after death asks the same question: Are you open to God's grace and mercy? Or, have you despaired in the face of death? Is death an opportunity or and end?
Death is a time to reach out to God and others. It is THE existential step that shows us what we believe as the Communion of Saints.
Have you ever attended a joy-filled funeral? What did the tone of the service say about the character of the deceased or loved ones? Did the service inspire you? Why or why not?
Even in times of discouragement, we can reach out to the Lord and others to share grief, feelings of rejection, and despair. When we reach out, we take the first step away from that which we share. We move toward life, away from death. The Good Thief made such a step, even in the face of a doubting crowd. And the Lord responded with life.
Reflect on your inner attitudes. What causes you dark feelings? What gives you hope? How can you offer both to the Lord this week?