Last night at the mission in St. Augustine Church, Ocean City, NJ, I read from St. Luke’s Passion narrative. (Luke 22, 26-49) Luke sees Jesus beginning his journey back to God from Galilee. After his condemnation by Pilate he goes to his death on Calvary, but his journey does not end here; it ends when he ascends into heaven.
Jesus did not make the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem alone; he gathered disciples to accompany him. Now, as he goes to Calvary, he does not go alone into the mystery of death. Simon of Cyrene and a large crowd of people including “many women who mourned and lamented him” go with him.
Luke notes that “after laying the cross on him, they made him carry it behind Jesus.” Simon, like all the other followers of Jesus, must be part of his journey. He must take up his cross and follow him, a theme emphasized in Luke’s gospel.
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 must inevitably come from such an injustice as his condemnation and death. The great city Jerusalem will be destroyed as a consequence. He tells us 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 Jerusalem city gates where so many people passed. The Romans saw it as an ideal 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.
Luke, like the other evangelists, sees this place of death in another light. Instead of harsh justice, injustice and death, Jesus offers forgiveness and new life here: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Here God is revealed, who does not just forgive but brings new life. The two criminals crucified with Jesus reveal God’s 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 be remembered. “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, in tender mercy Jesus reaches to one without hope.
Like Simon of Cyrene, the thief symbolizes humanity. He’s been promised life and safe passage through the mystery of death. He dies with Jesus. He’s the first, 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.