They crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.
When we think of Jesus hanging there on the cross, I think the picture that most often comes to mind is the classic icon of the crucifixion, with the body of Jesus flanked by Mary and John – his mother and his most faithful disciple. It is the picture of course from the Gospel of John, which tells how Jesus gives His mother and His friend into one another’s care. Iconographers chose that image because it allowed them to place three holy figures, Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John in the one composition. As viewers we are drawn into this holy triad of figures, mutually supporting one another around the cross that brings salvation to the world. It is, like John’s gospel as a whole, an expression of the glorification of Christ on the cross. While it challenges our faithfulness, our ability like Mary and John to dwell with and in Christ in His moment of greatest need and greatest triumph, it does not fundamentally unsettle a view of the world in which good triumphs and evil is punished.
It is a picture very different from that which we just heard in the gospel of Luke. Throughout his gospel Luke tells of a God who, like the father in the story of the prodigal son, does not wait for reparation, does not demand punishment, but overwhelms his wayward child with love and forgiveness, no matter what. So here, as Jesus is nailed to the cross, he prays, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’” They do not know what they are doing’...
Which is just as well, for our need of forgiveness is a constant of our lives – and above all perhaps we need to learn to forgive ourselves and be a little gentler. There is much in this I think to be learnt from the other triad of the crucifixion scene – the triad of Jesus and the two criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. For while we don’t mind too much identifying ourselves with Mary and John, I suspect most of us shy away from recognising that we are very like the two criminals, and that they have much to teach us if we listen.
The first criminal sees Jesus as perhaps his last chance of living. “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us” he keeps saying. It’s very easy to judge him. Yet does he not simply reflect our own desire for life and liberty? Which one of us, condemned to death, would not take the chance of a reprieve if we thought it possible? Life in this world is sweet and most of us seek to hold onto it as long as we can. Notice that Jesus does not reply and offers no words of condemnation for this human, natural desire for survival. To be ready to let go - of anything, wealth, position, familiar routines, leave alone life itself is a grace for which we can only continue to pray.
The second criminal – and we all hope we’d be more like him of course! – sees things differently. He has a sense that he and his companion are receiving a just, albeit harsh, return for their deeds. But he knows that Jesus is different –‘this man has done nothing wrong’, he says. He understands that Jesus not only exemplifies the suffering of the innocent, but is bearing that suffering without protest or complaint. Only God and God in us can do that. Most of us are quick to defend ourselves against unjust accusation, or to rail against the unfairness of suffering that seems to come without cause. Not Jesus.
When we look around our world, the faces of the innocent who suffer unjustly are everywhere. Christ is crucified again and again every day in them. The second thief has the right idea. “Jesus” he says, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
“Remember me” – he probably meant, ‘put in a good word for me with the boss’, but the phrase is rich. “Re-Member” means to put the limbs, the members back on the body. It is a plea for wholeness, for the salvation of his very being. Most of us know that we are not whole; everyone of us is wounded and battered in multiple ways not always visible to the human eye. And so his prayer becomes ours this Good Friday – ‘Jesus re-member us’; bring us back together again beyond death, in the fullness of God’s kingdom.
This is why we call this Friday ‘good’ – because we recognize that although we do not know what we are doing, yet God in Christ brings, forgiveness, hope and resurrection, even to criminals like us. Amen