On Good Friday
afternoon, Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, preached the Tre Ore Ceremony of the Seven Last Words of Christ in St. James Cathedral in Seattle, Washington. Below is the second reflection based on Luke 23:42
“This day you will be with me in Paradise.”
Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Throughout his Passion account, Luke emphasizes the mercy, compassion, and healing power of Jesus (22:51; 23:43), who does not go to death lonely and deserted, but is accompanied by others who follow him on the way of the cross (23:26-31, 49). The peaceful figure of Jesus rises above the hostility and anger of the crowds and the contorted legal process. Jesus remains a true model of reconciliation, forgiveness and peace. In the midst of his own agony and trial, we realize the depths of Jesus' passion for unity: he is capable of uniting even Pilate and Herod together in friendship [23:12]. From the cross, Luke presents Jesus forgiving his persecutors [23:34] and the dying Jesus allows even a thief to steal paradise! [23:43].
We all know this scene very well, having heard it and meditated upon it many times during our life. Close your eyes now and imagine this horrific moment. The sky has darkened and the storm is about to rip through the heavens. There are three hideous crosses planted on that ugly rock of Golgotha just outside the city walls of Jerusalem. Once again, Roman brutality results in three lives slowly slipping away before the madding and hostile crowd. Soldiers stand at the foot of the crosses jeering at the criminals. Among the witnesses are a few shocked family members, some acquaintances and maybe a few friends of the condemned criminals. Some are embracing each another, others are weeping uncontrollably. Some of the bystanders are mothers or fathers, brothers or sisters of those who are dying. Some are uttering: “This should not be happening. He is too young… he has a family… the punishment is too harsh.”
Others – perhaps some who were victims of the condemned criminals’ rampages, stand there jeering, mocking and insulting those who are dying before their very eyes. Some laugh and say to the three men on the crosses: “You are getting what you deserve – you thief, you murderer, you blasphemer, you insurgent, you ugly human being.” Some may even make jokes about the whole disgusting scene unfolding before their eyes. Making jokes in painfully excruciating and senseless situations sometimes eases our discomfort in a form of “comic relief.” Humor distances us from intimacy- from the atrocity that we are witnessing. Cracking jokes helps to suppress the nauseous feelings that rise within us. It’s very easy to distract ourselves from the repulsiveness of human suffering. Others may describe this moment with Schadenfreude, a pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. This German word literally means "harm-joy". It is the feeling of joy or pleasure when one sees another fail or suffer misfortune. It means to feel or express great, often malicious pleasure or self-satisfaction, at one's own success, or at another's failure.
One of the three condemned men – the one hanging on Jesus’ left – found a place among the mockers and scoffers. His mind was racing desperately for a way out of this horrible mess. Everything around him was a terrible blur. He walked passed the crowds of shouting, angry people and caught sight of some of his relatives who looked upon him with fright and pity. His heart was beating so fast that it seemed ready to pop out of his chest cavity.
When he reached the top of the hill of death, that criminal was stripped, beaten again and stretched out on the wood of the cross. As the cross was hoisted up and slammed into its rocky base, pain shot up through his spine, into his arms and his legs became numb. His nakedness before the crowd was just one more act of humiliation. The only dose of comfort he may have received was to realize that he was not alone as he looked down upon the madding crowd from his new vantage point of the cross. Next to his cross were two others: two men enduring the same tragic end to their lives. Misery loves company and this criminal was certainly not alone on the Place of the Skull.
The terror of this frightful situation is too much for the criminal to handle alone. He hears laughter and mocking below him and around him. He realizes that the crowd is jeering the man hanging on the cross to his right – the one they call “the King of the Jews” or “Messiah.” What does this dying low-life criminal do? He joins his voice to the crowd to ridicule his neighbor on the cross. He hollers out to Jesus: “If it’s true what they say about you, then save yourself! Jump down from the cross and save yourself? If you are God, save yourself and us too!” “Get us all out of here right now!”
But suddenly another voice joins the cacophony of jeering and taunting. The criminal to the left of Jesus suddenly hears the criminal on the Lord’s right reprimand him. “Shut up, you fool!” “Do you know what you are saying? The two of us are getting our just punishment for the wicked things we have done.” “We knew that we would get the death penalty when we wreaked havoc on earth. But this guy in the middle- he is innocent. He has done nothing wrong.”
What did Jesus do on earth? Why is he hanging on the cross? Because he intentionally challenged corruption in authority and blew the lid off of oppressive systems. He had women as close friends and disciples. He told parables that upset the religious establishment of his day. He cast out demons, picked grain on the Sabbath, touched people with flows of blood, visited Jewish cemeteries to seek out and heal the living dead chained to unclean tombs and raised the dead to life. He flung furniture down the steps of the Temple when people turned it into an emporium and warned people about judging others.
The one hanging on the cross in the middle proclaimed the Kingdom of God and reminded people that Paradise was theirs for the asking. The Greek word for paradise is paradisio. It refers to the Garden of Eden – a state of delight – a place where all things are just, fair, equal and whole. It was a place of true shalom.
Then the criminal on the right blurts out amidst the jeering and taunting: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus turns his head to the thief on his right and sees that he understands him, that he gets it. The thief on the right realizes that Jesus has been wrongly sentenced to death because he spent his life seeking peace, justice, wholeness, holiness and shalom. Jesus was innocent of criminal behavior and bears no shame or guilt for all that he did during his lifetime, unlike the other two thugs dying with him on Calvary. And then Jesus startles the thief on his right, the one whom tradition has named “Dismas” or “the dying one.” Jesus tells him: “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
“Today you accept me as Lord of your life and are willing to stand with me even in this anguish.”
“Today, I want you with me… not tomorrow when you truly repent of all the evil you have wreaked upon others, nor in three years after you have come to your senses and have served your time in a prison dungeon. I want you with me today.”
“Today, I want you with me today because you have understood me.”
During his homily at the Chrism Mass at the Vatican Holy Thursday morning this year, Pope Francis reminded the clergy of his diocese: “God does not only forgive incalculable debts, as he does to that servant who begs for mercy but is then miserly to his own debtor; he also enables us to move directly from the most shameful disgrace to the highest dignity without any intermediary stages. The Lord allows the forgiven woman to wash his feet with her tears. As soon as Simon confesses his sin and begs Jesus to send him away, the Lord raises him to be a fisher of men. We, however, tend to separate these two attitudes: when we are ashamed of our sins, we hide ourselves and walk around with our heads down, like Adam and Eve; and when we are raised up to some dignity, we try to cover up our sins and take pleasure in being seen, almost showing off. Our response to God’s superabundant forgiveness should be always to preserve that healthy tension between a dignified shame and a shamed dignity.”
One of the most excruciating experiences in life is to be left out, to be unwanted. How could we not think that the thief on the cross did not know the pain of rejection? We have his own admission that he deserved execution. He, too, was most likely an abandoned and unloved man, one who was also abused, a person whose life of crime reflected a loveless, unloved life. When one lives life believing that no one would want anything to do with them, that person is prone to do bad things.
Can you imagine this criminal’s shocked reaction when Jesus looked him in the eye and said, “today, you will be with me.” “You and I?” “A king and a terrible criminal?” “A savior of the world and the scum of the earth… in paradise together?” “Why would Jesus want to spend time with me!”
Thankfully, this criminal experienced love, mercy and forgiveness just before he died. While it is regrettable that Dismas did not experience this love until those final moments, at least he met mercy in the face, hanging on the cross next to him as the two prepared to close their eyes on a violent world. After a lifetime of abuse, crime and deception, the man crucified with Jesus was extricated from the vortex of evil of the other criminals, removed from the mob hostility that was aimed at Jesus. This criminal decided to take a bold step of faith. After a lifetime of rejection, deception and violence, Dismas died in peace and entered paradise with Jesus at His side.
Here is the clincher for us: the grace, forgiveness and mercy offered to a hardened criminal on Golgotha are there for us, too. All we have to do is admit our own wretchedness, look at Jesus on the cross and ask him to remember us in our own misery, sadness and solitude. And Jesus will respond to us, too: “Today, you will be with me.” Today.