Monday, March 29, 2010

The Tough Guy

By Eric Von Salzen

I’m not a big fan of Lent. Lent makes me think about things I’d just as soon not think about. In Lent — and particularly in this week, this Holy Week — we’re supposed to think about some very unpleasant things, like betrayal, cowardice, oppression, injustice, violence, torture, pain, and death.

Of course, the discomfort of hearing about these things is eased for us by the fact that we know where it is leading: To Easter and the Resurrection. We’ve already read the last chapter of the book, seen the final reel of the movie; we know how it’s going to come out.

But the people who lived through those events didn’t know that everything was going to turn out all right in the end. Even though Jesus had told them what was going to happen, they didn’t understand it, they didn’t believe it. They didn’t believe it when he told them he was going to be killed, and when he was killed they didn’t believe that he would rise, although he’d told them that, too.

When Jesus was arrested, condemned, and taken to the place of execution, the Disciples thought that it would be all over if Jesus died. And he did die. How terrible that must have been for the Disciples, and for Jesus’ family and friends. Unlike us, they didn’t know that Easter was coming.

And yet, even in those dark days, before anyone knew there would be an Easter, there was the shining light of redemption. And it came at the worst hour of those ghastly days: the crucifixion itself.

The Gospels tell us that Jesus was crucified with two criminals — or robbers, or bandits, or thieves, depending on the translation. And Matthew and Mark tell us that these thieves joined in with the Roman soldiers, and the chief priests and scribes, and the others who gathered below the crosses, in mocking and reviling Jesus.

But Luke tells a fuller story. He says that one of the thieves did indeed mock Jesus, saying, “If you are the Messiah, save yourself and save us!”

Think about that. Here is this criminal, who has been condemned to death, to a painful and dishonorable death. And while that terrible sentence is being carried out on him, he takes the time to mock another human being who is under the same sentence and is suffering the same agonies that he is suffering.

Why did he do that?

Luke tells us that the thief spoke after the Roman soldiers said much the same thing to Jesus, and I think the thief was seeking the soldiers’ approval by joining in with them. The thief was proud of himself for being a tough guy, and he wanted the Roman soldiers – and everyone knew that they were toughest guys around – to know that he was a tough guy, too, he was really one of them, even though they were torturing and killing him at the time. He wanted their respect. So he mocked the man dying on the next cross.

To the first thief, it was important that he be respected by the tough guys, by the people that he respected, and he hoped that they would remember him as a tough guy even after his death. Perhaps they did. For awhile.

But the second thief didn’t join in the mockery. On the contrary, he rebuked his fellow thief. (I’m drawing an inference when I call him a “fellow thief”. Luke doesn’t tell us whether the two thieves knew each other. But the second thief says to the first:

“We have been condemned justly; we are getting what we deserve for our deeds.”

So it sounds to me as though the two thieves knew each other pretty well.)

And then the second thief goes on to say that Jesus “has done nothing wrong.”

Now, if that were the whole story, it would be powerful enough. It would be the story of a condemned criminal, suffering and dying for his crimes, able to see that the man suffering beside him was innocent, and using his last breath to testify to that man’s innocence.

But there is more than that to the story. For then the second thief speaks to Jesus and says: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

The second thief understands that Jesus is just who we (who have read the last chapter of the book) know that He is: The Messiah, the Christ. The second thief knows that after the crucifixion Jesus will come into His kingdom.

Think about that: It will not be until the third day that the Disciples realize what a dying thief knows on day one.

The two thieves offer us two very different visions of what is important in life. Like the first thief, we can seek the approval of those people that we think are important in our world, by doing and saying what they do and say, or what we think that they want us to do and say, and we can hope that they will respect us as their kind of person and even remember us, for awhile, after we’re gone.

Or, we can follow the second thief, and ask Jesus to remember us.

And if we do ask, the promise is there. Because what Jesus said to the second thief was: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

“You will be with me in Paradise.”


Two days before Easter.


  1. The reading of the passion and Christ on the cross with the two thieves always brings a tear to my eye. I think too many of us are more like the tough guy, especially in our culture. Christ calls us to become more (but not totally) self-less, with our focus on obeying in love what God has revealed to us through the Church. He has given us the way to a better everything, but we keep getting in the way over and over again. Ironically, it takes great courage to give major events in one's life "up to God"--even though many would mock you for being not valiant enough in the face of adversity. At any rate, today is Holy Thursday--Maundy Thursday--and I wish all of you a reflective and meaningful end to Holy Week.

  2. How do you know this? Maybe the first thief was just desperate and would try anything to get down?
    And does this mean that the Episcopal church supports the death penalty?

  3. I guess that's what they call "gallows humor", eh Brad?

    Like the last scene in "Life of Brian"?