THE next few days will surely give us a surfeit of the Man of the Cross on the hill of Golgotha; but not enough, I suppose, about His companions there. When those He healed had all gone home, when those He broke bread with had all fled in fear, when even those who wanted to see Him dead had left for home with the feeling of a job well done, the only ones left with Him were two bandits. They, too, I submit, have the right to be heard.
The Gospels do not give much information about them. Mark simply notes, “And with him, they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.” Matthew, in the same vein, writes “Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.” John, like the previous two, just reports, “There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.” Only Luke has an extensive narrative, telling us that from Pilate “two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him”. While hanging, the three had some sort of a conversation amongst them, but still, not much information is given about who the two characters were.
Attempts were made to fill in the gap. Various names, for instance, were given them, such as, for the one on the right and for the one on the left, Joathas and Maggatras, Capnatas and Gamatras, Soatham and Camma, Dysmas and Gestas. But then, what’s in a name? The poet asks. Gone are the days when the name corresponded to some characteristic of the person, as in “Prince Valiant;” today, “Gloria” does not necessarily mean anything of that sort.
The bandits’ names, too, were irrelevant, as far as the Gospels were concerned. What’s more important to the sacred writers than the name is the role that was assigned to them.
The common view is that the presence of the guilty bandits together with the blameless one is intended to highlight the innocence of Jesus, as some sort of minor characters acting as foils to the hero. That the innocent is bundled together with the criminals, it is argued, stresses even more the ironic fate that had befallen the Innocent One.
That view, however, may explain the brief references in Mark, Mark and John, but not the more extended treatment of Luke. Thus, others maintain that the real motive behind the episode in Luke of the bandits was to set the stage for the last word of Jesus to a human being prior to his death. And that word is the forgiving word of a prodigal (in the sense of excessive, or even recklessly, abundant) Son.
Thus, the first wrongdoer was said to have joined the chain of mockers that had been taunting Christ on the cross. He is to say, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” His mocking has a unique edge over the previous ones. The Jewish rulers and the Roman soldiers who had earlier mocked Jesus did so under the color of legitimacy coming from the conduct of an inquiry or trial. The first wrongdoer’s taunts came, in contrast, from a polluted source, from one who himself is guilty. The black kettle is calling the shinny pot black.
With this affront by the guilty on the innocent, the second wrongdoer takes serious issue. He rebukes his fellow bandit for not seeing the inequity (though the injustice was really in their favor) of the situation of the guilty befalling the innocent. In other words, he points out an injustice being perpetuated in the fact that, up there as the three of them hung on each one’s cross, the innocent is being treated like the both of them who are the guilty. “We,” he is to say, “indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
One wonders how the second bandit could make such a blanket statement that “this man has done nothing wrong.” Was he a follower, i.e. someone who had been following Jesus in his public life, physically but not, like the disciples, in faith? The text does not give the slightest indication of that possibility.
Besides, the statement that Jesus has done nothing wrong is not exactly true. At some point, Jesus did cause some commotion in the Temple at Jerusalem when he drove the money changers out. Jerusalem must have been packed with people at that time, and keeping order was, to use current vocabulary, a logistical nightmare for the Roman soldiers. What Jesus did in driving out the vendors from the Temple is at the very least disorderly conduct. From where the military sits, it could easily be seen as inciting people to revolt.
Actually, the second wrongdoer was not interested in straightening out the mocking bandit. He did not rebuke his fellow bandit to reform him. Without waiting for his colleague to formulate a reply, the second bandit in a manner reminiscent of participants in televised election debates where the protagonists ask questions their opponents questions not to elicit an answer but to sway catch the attention, if not the sympathy, of the audience, addressed himself right away to Jesus.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he says. What justifies the familiarity that emboldened him to say “Jesus” to his co-crucified whom he had just a few moments ago described in a detached manner as “this man”? Moreover, what had he done to merit what he was asking for? He simply recognized the fitness of the penalty to the gravity of his deeds. But he did not say he was sorry for his banditry.
We further note that what the second wrongdoer was asking for was no small thing. Current usage of “remember” suggests to us in this day and age the same meaning as “recalling”. But “remembering” in the bible is not just a matter of memory. As far back as the story of Noah and the flood, the word “remember” means something more. After the one hundred fifty days when the waters of the great flood swelled on the earth, God is said to have “remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark” and made the waters subside. To be remembered, therefore, is to be delivered from harm.
So what the second wrongdoer was really asking from Jesus was for him to be delivered from the predicament he rightly found himself in. He was selfish, too. Unlike the first wrongdoer who taunted Jesus to save himself and the two of them, notably using the word “us,” the second wrongdoer was not including his running mate in his plea.
In addition, the second wrongdoer was making a strong pitch for being admitted, despite everything --his condemnable deeds, recognized but unrepented—into the kingdom of the person he just a few seconds ago referred to cooly as a “man.”
The shocker is the response of Jesus. Said he, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Clearly, the answer is mind-boggling. The second wrongdoer was content with just being remembered at some time in the future, i.e. “when you come into your kingdom.” He did not mean “when” to be right away, otherwise, he would have said “Let’s go.” But, beyond his expectation, the “when” became “today.”
Not only that, he was not to go by his lonesome self as a pariah; he was also assured of good company, “You will be with me”. That while what the bandit must have thought was that he was going all alone on economy, if not more likely via the waiting list, what he was told was that he was traveling with the boss and, consequently, though unworthy, was going First Class. And, finally, together, they were going to the classiest place in town, Paradise, where there is flowing milk and honey.
That, I suggest, was the whole point of the Lucan episode about the bandits. Jesus is not looking for a perfect score. He is open to the less than very holy. He is open too to those who heretofore have been living checkered lives.
Luke thus gives me hope. If Luke delivers, someday, I could to be chatting with a fellow bandit (who could perhaps be also a member of the bar) in the back row up in the sky where wine ceases not to flow.
Happy Easter, to all.
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