Luke 23: 39 *Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” 40 The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? 41 And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”v 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”w 43 He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”x 
The Painting – (1) Notice how the angels, twice the height and four times the substance of the good thief, are painted according to the vision of Ezekiel. Therefore these angels must be the Cherubim, which according to the Jewish and then Christian traditions are the second highest Rank of angel, only the Seraphim being of higher rank. And recall how God Himself, in the Holy of Holies in the great Temple at Jerusalem “sat” upon the Cherubim (Exodus 25:18-22), or, better, how the Cherubim upheld the creator God in essentially the same position as the good Thief is here. When the crucified Lord promised Paradise to the other Thief, He arranged for him to be escorted there by angels of second-highest Rank of all, showing him extraordinary honor. (2) Notice the beautiful vulnerability, sincerity, and upward-looking wonder painted on the face of that crucified Thief, a theological demonstration of the famous hymn: “What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul…. And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on … and through eternity I’ll sing on!” (3) Notice the sweetness remembered by the painter in the supporting hands of the angels he sees placed under the elbows of that redeemed Thief. The two angels are neither dragging him from Earth to Heaven, nor pushing him upwards. Rather the two Cherubim, showing remarkable courtesy, give him only the steadying support he requires. The Thief’s face makes clear that he already knows the way – he sees to Whom he is ascending. And his eloquent “lightness of being” proves that finally his burden of cares and sin have been lifted, and he knows it. He is going home. His face is so much more beautiful, expressive, than those of the Cherubim.
For years I pulled my own existence out of
Then one swoop, one swing of the arm,
that work is over.
Free of who I was, free of presence, free
of dangerous fear, hope, free
of mountainous wanting.
We are surprised when at verse 32 of this chapter in Luke it reads: 32 “Now two others, both criminals, were led away with him to be executed.”  We failed to notice these other two, because the Passion account compels our intense focus on Jesus and on all the work that has gone into manipulating the Roman system to secure His death. But suddenly there they are, walking with Jesus (the Greek reads: σὺν αὐτῷ), and they will go all the way with Him (unlike most of Jesus’ disciples who did not stay with Him to the end), walking to death with Him … and He with them.
As we read the Passion account, and by this powerful narrative are taken closer and closer to Golgotha and to the fiercest purpose of Christ’s heart – the complete unmasking of divine Love – we may notice that reality itself begins to distort, or warps, if you will. It is as if a Meaning too powerful to “frame” sufficiently and to hold is blooming inside of reality, a Meaning that is too much for (our) reality to bear, to comprehend.
10 He was in the world,
and the world came to be through him,
but the world did not know him.
11 He came to what was his own,
but his own people* did not accept him. 
That is, the distinctions we make between who is “good” and who is “bad”, which are so easy to make for us ungenerous, cliquish, classist human beings (Jesus was really bothered by this habit of humans), become, as we are drawn nearer to the Cross, much more difficult for us to keep clear.
For example, Luke clarifies for us that these two men with Jesus were not “thieves”, because the deeds of thieves did not rise to the level of a crucifixion-offense in Roman law. Luke uses the more accurate word “criminal” (kakourgoi in the Greek: καὶ ἕτεροι κακοῦργοι δύο – “the two others, criminals”). And so, we must judge these two men as “bad.” Right? For them to have earned crucifixion proves that they were really bad men, men who had murdered a Roman soldier or fomented an insurrection against the Roman State – some serious crime. Yet (and here is the “warping” or “distorting” of reality that I mentioned), these two walked with Jesus, and He with them … to the end!
Contrast these “really bad men,” staying with Jesus to the end, with the “good” disciples of Jesus who made other plans. Mark writes of them: 50 And they all left Him and fled. 51 Now a young man followed him wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body. They seized him, 52 but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked. 
What are we to make of this? Can it be that being with Jesus at the most intimate and redemptively profound place possible – “conformed to a death like His” – can never be within our power to choose for ourselves? Is it the Law of the Cross that we each must be caught and taken towards a death like His, in order for us to be able, finally, to infuse our dying and death with our most whole-hearted love, everything else having been taken from us? Is this what Jesus is getting at when He, the now resurrected Lord, speaks to Peter, teaching Him about what now appear to be two distinct stages of spiritual maturity?
John 21: 18 *Amen, amen, I say to you,j when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”k 
The disciples of Jesus were “free” during the Passion of Christ. But when presented with the chance to be with/to stay with Jesus to the end, they fled. Choosing to stay with Jesus was simply beyond their capacity, humiliating even their most fervent intention:
Matthew 26: 33 Peter said to him in reply, “Though all may have their faith in you shaken, mine will never be.” 34 *o Jesus said to him, “Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.”p 35 Peter said to him, “Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you.” And all the disciples spoke likewise. 
But the two criminals stayed. They both were “led off where they did not want to go”, their freedom torn from them, and as a result they were with Jesus … to the end … and He with them.
Reality is warping as we are drawn near to the Cross of Christ.
Those whose lives are taken (as were the two criminals, and Jesus) have had their freedom stripped from them like clothes (“you used to dress yourself”). Suddenly they face a profound choice about what to do about this. When they have nothing left, they come to that which no one can take from them – the love they feel, and are, and which love they discover wants to give itself freely and completely because it can and must. Love wants to “conform itself to a death like His” – crying out “Father, into your hands (not theirs) I commend my spirit!”
Now, one criminal is furious and lashes out with vicious speech at the one person on Golgotha who had no connection whatever to his crime and punishment. But the other criminal, in exactly the same circumstance, became someone very different.
It was about his son, that criminal’s son. I keep seeing him there, standing over there not far from where his dad is dying. His face awash in tears is so easy to see because he is looking up at, because he looks up to, his dad. This oldest son knows that his dad is a hero, a man of great courage, because he stood up to the Romans. Watch his face and the way he moves in relation to the Roman soldiers who are presiding over the murder of his dad. His face is an unbearable mix of emotions: of a desperate helplessness that mocks what in him wants to be able to save his dad; of a minute-by-minute kindling of hatred within him towards these soldiers and against the Roman State; and the heartbreaking vulnerability so clear on the face of this young man who is being forced to grow up far too quickly. (Why am I unable not to see him there?)
His dad sees him too.
Of course he sees him! And what he sees is his son learning to hate as his dad learned to do, learning the dark lessons of resentment, recognizing that his dad’s work is now his to carry forward. It is all there, articulate on the surface of his son’s face, so easy for his dad to read.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
And, there on his cross of death, this criminal understood. Already the power of Christ’s sacrifice, and Christ right near him, is becoming effective, redemptive. He chooses to show his son a different way. Speaking loudly enough so that his son can hear him, he turns in reproach against the hate-speech of the other criminal (had they been collaborators in crime?). And he owns up, acknowledging his crime – “I deserve this that is happening to me” – and then he shows tenderness to the Man at the center of everyone’s scorn there at Golgotha, to Jesus. And then his son hears him say to Jesus, “Remember me.”
His son saw and heard and did not miss the tenderness. And we wonder as we look at him there whether his face has the capacity to express such a depth of bewilderment and wonder that he suddenly is feeling, as his dad becomes a good father to him, showing him a different way. Does not his face express something close to the startled joy that we saw on the face of the blind man (John 9:1-40) when Jesus in the Temple that day gave him for the first time (he was born blind) the power to see?
John 9: 35 When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, he found him and said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered and said, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him and the one speaking with you is he.”
This bad man became different. He became a father. He did so because he noticed his son with him, who was there with him to the end. He chose to be a good father, because finally he understood, and at enormous personal cost, how to love and to teach his son to be a man, to be a good man. Jesus saw all of this that this father was doing for his son, and He understood … because His own Father was a father like this too.
Do you see, then, what Jesus did? This bad man had only asked for himself one thing, that Jesus remember him. But Jesus – the good Jesus – chose instead to give to him, as a first-fruit of the Redemption, not only Paradise “today” (!) but also His enduring friendship – “you will be with me” there.
Matthew 7: 11 If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.h 
Doers of the Word: Concentrate during this second week of Lent on using your power – in the contemporary context and language of the Marvel studios, it is a “super-power” – to “make lovable” any person you notice each day whom you guess is feeling unlovable, or at least unloved. Use your divine power (see Romans 5:5b – “because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us.”) of noticing such people, of acknowledging them, by inviting them with discrete charm into conversation with you. Our commitment simply to notice a person, and to personalize each encounter, is an exercise of (divine) power characteristic of God Himself Who said to His Son, and so that others could hear it clearly spoken: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
 In the Oxford Dictionary of Art Online at “James Tissot (1836-1902)” – “French painter, printmaker and enamellist. He grew up in a port, an experience reflected in his later paintings set on board ship. He moved to Paris c. 1856 and became a pupil of Louis Lamothe and Hippolyte Flandrin. He made his Salon début in 1859 and continued to exhibit there successfully until he went to London in 1871…. His religious experience [around 1884] led him to devote his remaining years primarily to illustrating the Life of Christ and the Old Testament. Tissot felt impelled to depict the Palestine of Christ’s day and he made several trips to the Holy Land to do research. His series of 365 gouache illustrations for the Life of Christ (New York, Brooklyn Mus.) were executed at the Château de Buillon, which he had inherited from his father in 1888 and shown to enthusiastic crowds in Paris (1894 and 1895), London (1896) and New York (1898) and then toured North America until 1900.”
* This episode is recounted only in this gospel.
v 23:4, 14, 22.
w 9:27; 23:2, 3, 38.
x 2 Cor 12:3; Rev 2:7.
 New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Lk 23:39–43.
 Ezekiel 1:6 They were in human form, but each had four faces and four wings, 7 and their legs were straight, the soles of their feet like the hooves of a bull, gleaming like polished brass. 8 Human hands were under their wings, and the wings of one touched those of another. 9 Their faces and their wings looked out on all their four sides; they did not turn when they moved, but each went straight ahead.
 In the West, these nine Ranks and Three Orders of the angels, get their definitive place in the theologies of the West in the work of (pseudo-) Dionysius the Areopagite (late 4th and early 5th century), in his On the Celestial Hierarchy, where the three Ranks making up the highest Order of angels are, in descending order: Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones.
 I am not arguing that this incident recounted in Luke 23:39-43 is the theological source for the hymn, but only that I could imagine that the hymn could only have its source in a personal experience such as that experienced by the good Thief that Good Friday.
 See: https://hymnary.org/text/what_wondrous_love_is_this_o_my_soul_o_m. The author of this poem is unknown.
 Rumi (1207-1273) – “This World which is Made for Our Love of Emptiness”, found at March 4th of A Year with Rumi: Daily Readings, selected and translated by Coleman Barks (HarperOne).
 New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Lk 23:32.
* What was his own … his own people: first a neuter, literally, “his own property/possession” (probably = Israel), then a masculine, “his own people” (the Israelites).
 New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 1:10–11.
 Obviously, I do not mean that human beings are better when they have become unable to distinguish right and wrong! What I mean relates to that which Jesus was getting at in His parables, those that clarify that it is not for us humans to judge others (as in “being judgmental”), judging others as if we had the depth of insight into others that God Himself has. Think of the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat; think of “get the plank out of your own eye first”; think of the Parable of the Sower and the Seeds; think of the story of the Pharisee and the Publican or of Zacchaeus, and on and on.
 κακοῦργος (< κακός + ἔργω) evil-doer, criminal.
 New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Mk 14:50–52.
* Originally probably a proverb about old age, now used as a figurative reference to the crucifixion of Peter.
j Acts 21:11, 14; 2 Pt 1:14.
 New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 21:18–19.
* Before the cock crows: see note on Mt 14:25. The third watch of the night was called “cockcrow.” Deny me: see note on Mt 16:24.
o Lk 22:33–34; Jn 13:37–38.
 New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Mt 26:33–35.
 As we will see, the essential contrast is not between him being, finally, so different from the other criminal. Rather, the contrast that matters is between the man he was that earned him his crucifixion and the man he “found” within himself to become while dying near Jesus.
 A stanza taken from the song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” in the musical South Pacific (1958). Songwriters: Oscar Hammerstein II / Richard Rodgers. “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” lyrics © Williamson Music.
 New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 9:35–37.
 It is crucial that we allow this criminal to be bad. Why? Because it is of greatest importance in understanding the miracle that happened in him on Golgotha to accept what he said about himself – “We have been condemned justly…” (Luke 23:41). It is a really bad man whom Christ saves, whom Christ is with, and with to the end, and to whom – “O wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul?” – He gives Paradise and friendship with Him forever.
h 1 Jn 5:14–15.
 New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Mt 7:11.
 New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Ro 5:5.
Leave a Reply