Faces Around the Cross: 3 of 9

Faces Around the Cross: Bad Guys
by:Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

We are looking at “Faces Around the Cross.” We have already looked at the clergy, and the soldiers. Today we look at the Bad Guys. I have used the term “bad guys” to refer to those who were crucified alongside Jesus. Of course, we might just as easily call them “victims,” for many of those who were crucified by the Romans were arguably kinder, gentler, better people than many of those who carried out the crucifixions.

The tradition of two others being crucified alongside of Jesus is well established. It is mentioned in each of the four gospels.

John mentions that two “others” were crucified with Jesus, “one on either side, with Jesus Between them.” But John does not mention the crimes, their guilt or innocence, or, any remarks they may have made about Jesus or to Jesus. In John’s gospel those who were crucified alongside of Jesus were players on a stage, victims of Roman cruelty and nothing more. John says that, since the three victims were crucified on the day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross on the sabbath, for that sabbath was a high day, the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and their bodies taken away. Pilate must have agreed, for John says that the soldiers “came” and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with Jesus; but when they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead, and they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced the side of Jesus with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. This may be the blood and water of heart failure; it certainly represents the cup of blessing which we share and the waters of baptism. John notes that there was an eyewitness to these events, and that the eyewitness was known to him, and to his community, and the testimony of the witness is true. The 4th Gospel declares that the witness tells the truth that others might believe. John also notes that these things took place that two texts of scripture might be fulfilled. The first was Psalm 34:20, “Not a bone of him shall be broken.” The second was Zechariah 12:10, “They shall look on him whom they have pierced.” (John 19:31:37)

Mark and Matthew agree that two “robbers” were crucified with Jesus, “one on his right and one on his left.” Both agree that these robbers reviled Jesus as the crowds did. We already know that the crowds reviled Jesus saying:

“He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will be believe in him. He trust in God, let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, “I am the Son of God.”

Luke does not call the two men who were crucified with Jesus “robbers.” He calls them “criminals.” This can be harmonized. Luke differs in that he says that one of the criminals who were hanged with Jesus railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

But the other criminal rebuked his fellow, saying:

“Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”

And then this man said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:32-43)

Now scholars have long debated the meaning of this conversation between Jesus and the dying criminal. The major focus of this debate has to do with the relationship between our Resurrection and our Eternal Life. Let me explain.

In the time of Jesus, Jews had a linear view of history. They started with the creation, and progressed through the call of Abraham, and the deliverance at the Red/Reed Sea, and the giving of the Law through Moses, and so on, and so on. They traced a straight line from the beginning of history, through all the events that had effected the world, and especially the nation of Israel, right up to the end of history. In the course of history some have done good without reward; and some have done bad without punishment. Since the LORD God is the God of the Covenant, these anomalies cannot go unresolved. Therefore, the Pharisees, and Jesus, and many of the people, who were neither Pharisees, or Sadducees, but independents, said at the end of history there would be a General Resurrection, and at this General Resurrection the Righteous Dead would be raised to Eternal Life (alongside the Righteous who still Lived) and the Unrighteous dead would be raised to judgement (alongside the Unrighteous who still lived). In this view of things, one does not enter “heaven” until one has been raised from the dead, and one is not raised from the dead until the General Resurrection at the end of history.

But Jesus word to the dying thief complicates this scenario. He said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” In this scenario the dying Jesus seems to anticipate the words of St. Paul in 2nd Corinthians chapter 5. The apostle writes, “If this earthly tent we dwell in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Paul then goes on to say those of us who still inhabit the earthly tent—by which he means our corruptible bodies, which are subject to age, and rot and decay, groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling—by which he means our Resurrection bodies that are like unto the body of the Risen Christ, so that by putting it on we “may not be found naked”—or, “without a body.”

Several solutions have been proposed to reconcile this problem of being “without a body” or “apart from the body.” Some theologians talk about “soul sleep.” They say that when we die our souls sleep until that Resurrection morning when the trumpet blows and the dead in Christ are raised. Some say that souls that sleep dream. Some say that souls that sleep are not aware of the passage of time. All agree that souls that sleep wake refreshed, in a Resurrection Body. Other theologians talk about an intermediate state in heaven, so that the souls of the righteous dead are in heaven with God, but not yet clothed with a body like the Resurrection body of Jesus. In the intermediate state souls are conscious and aware of events talking place in heaven and on earth, but they are not yet full participants in these events. This appears to be the state of some of the saints in the Revelation of St. John the Divine who watch the final events unfold upon the earth, and joyously await the marriage supper of the Lamb when Jesus will sit at table in the Kingdom of God with all who belong to Him. That feast will be extraordinary.

Of course, all theology having to do with soul sleep or an intermediate state is based upon a linear view of time—that time is a straight line from beginning to end. We we live in the 21st Century now know this is not the case. Since the time of Albert Einstein, we have known that time and space are always relative to where we are on the space time continuum. We can see the truth of this statement in a simple example.

Consider the case of two men playing ping-pong on a flat-bed railway car traveling at speed. They are playing on an 8 foot table, and each time one of them strikes the ball, it travels about 8 feet. Or, does it? Suppose that you are not on that flat-car, but standing by the side of the track as the train roars by. You see one player hit the ball, but when he does, you do not see the ball travel 8 feet to the other player, you see the ball travel much further, and the distance it travels depends upon how fast the train is traveling.

As impossible, wonderful and miraculous as it seems, space and time are indeed relative.

Theologians who believe that space and time are relative, believe that “all time is always present to God in God’s eternity.” God is always present in every time and place but that is not true of human beings in this world.

Let me give you a simple example of how this works out from our human perspective. Suppose my wife dies. Elayne goes immediately into God’s Eternity, while I remain here. When Elayne opens her eyes she has been transported immediately to the Resurrection Morning and she is surround by all her family and friends, those who died before her, and after her. I am there, too. Jesus said that in heaven people no longer marry, but I have hung around with Elayne for 45 years now, and I am used to her. Meantime, back in this world, I live out the rest of my life, until, at last, I close my eyes in death, and wake up on that same Resurrection morning, next to Elayne, surrounded by the same family and friends we knew in life, those who died before me, and those who died after me.

Now all this sounds complicated, but not if you remember just this: Our being called home to Christ in death, and Christ coming back for his Church on Earth as the last act of history, are but two sides of the same coin.

Of course, there is another issue about the confession of the dying thief. Just how much faith does he have in Jesus—and what is the content of that faith?

On the one hand, some have suggested that in saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” the dying thief is like an old soldier facing certain death in battle trying to encourage another soldier many years his junior. The dying thief posses personal bravery, and presence of mind, and he shows the younger man, Jesus, great tenderness. He wants him to know that his life has not been lived in vain.

On the other hand, some have suggested that dying thief had a level of faith not unlike that of a Christian. They argue that the dying thief made a confession of faith in God, and a confession of his own sin, when he rebukes the other thief for taunting Jesus. Do you remember how he said:

“Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”

Likewise, they argue that the dying thief confesses his faith in Jesus and his kingdom when he turns to the Crucified One and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” They say this confession of faith anticipates his resurrection and his rule, and that it is very close indeed to Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your lips that ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

I suppose my own opinion falls somewhere between these two opinions. I believe it is impossible for us to know what was in the man’s heart and mind, and we can only speculate about the words we now read in the gospel. Yet, in their original context, those words imply a delicious irony. Like many before him, and many after him, the dying thief appears to be a man without a future. He is not a bad man, but his bad deeds have caught up with him. He has received a sentence that is just and commensurate with his crimes. He is living on “that (very) last cloudy day after which the sun will not return.” He will likely be dead before sunset, and he has little hope of another sunrise. Indeed, the only hope he has is pretty thin—-the man crucified alongside him promises him that when the sunsets on his life in this word, he will enter the new life of Paradise alongside of him.

For the dying thief this hope is pretty thin—-but we who read the Gospel of St. Luke know the promise of the Dying Savior to be strong and true. For we know that, three days hence, Jesus the Christ will indeed be raised from death, and that he is worthy of the name that is above every name, and if anyone can save the soul of one dying on a cross, it is he. After all, in the case of Jesus of Nazareth, the cross is not the bad end of a good man, it is a road traveled once for all by our now victorious Lord and Savior.

Finis

About the author:

The Rev. Dr. Worth Green is the Senior Pastor of New Philadelphia Moravian Church.. Follow him on Twitter / Facebook.