Palm Sunday this year we read the passion narrative from Luke’s gospel. Luke sees Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as a journey which begins in Galilee, then on to Calvary and finally, after his resurrection, continues when Jesus ascends into heaven. The journey is also a theme that describes the history of his church.
Jesus does not make the journey alone. From Galilee to Jerusalem he gathers disciples to accompany him. As he faces the mystery of death, he does not face it alone– his disciples are with him. Simon of Cyrene and “a large crowd of people” including “many women who mourned and lamented him” go with him. All the world is with him on the way.
Luke notes that “after laying the cross on him, they made Simon carry it behind Jesus.” Simon represents every follower of Jesus who goes with him on this part of the journey. It’s not only the cross of Jesus Simon carries, it’s his own cross, his daily cross. This is a theme Luke emphasizes in his gospel: “Then he said to all: ‘ If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.’”(Luke 9,23-24)
Jesus’ words to the women “who mourned and lamented him” are puzzling. Some say he offers them comfort, even as he goes to his death. But other commentators see his words as a prophetic announcement of the judgment that inevitably happens after an injustice like his condemnation and death. Jerusalem will be destroyed as a consequence. Is Luke telling us that every unjust act, every sin has consequences that cannot be waived away?
Two criminals accompany Jesus to Calvary, the place of execution just outside the city gates where many people passed. For the Romans it was the perfect place to display their fierce justice. Jesus would die at this hellish place of torture and death. Not a place one wished to be or to see.
Yet Luke, like the other evangelists, sees light in this place of death. Instead of harsh justice, suffering and death, Jesus offers God’s forgiveness and new life here: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Here God is revealed, who not just forgives but brings to new life. The two criminals crucified with Jesus reveal God’s life-giving power at work. One criminal mocks Jesus on the opposite cross. “Are you not the Messiah. Save yourself and us.” The other rebukes him and turns to Jesus with a plea to remember him. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
More than simply remembering him, Jesus promises to take him on his journey to God. “Amen I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” As he did so often, Jesus reaches in tender mercy to one without hope.
Like Simon of Cyrene, the thief represents humanity. He’s been promised life and safe passage through the mystery of death. He dies with Jesus. He’s the first,and he is a reminder that eternal life is never denied to anyone.
The thief is a powerful sign of the promise made to us all. We will die, but we die with the Lord. Calvary is where we best understand the mystery of death.