Monday, November 14, 2016

Who Likes the Thief?


I have some confessions to make. First, I don't like Romantic poetry. Of Percy Shelley and his companions, I think my old roommate John de la Parra said it best: "I fall upon the thorns of life! I gag!" Second, I don't like movies with unequivocally happy endings. I am more entertained by confusion, conflicting emotions, and bitter goodbyes. Third, I don't like morality tales that telegraph their message long before their conclusions. When I tell bedtime stories to my children, I prefer the unedited version of Grimm. Finally, I don't like Luke's version of the crucifixion. That penitent thief with his on-the-cross conversion is more than I can bear. But in the lectionary I only have to endure it once every three years, so I suppose I'd better make the best of it.

This Sunday is the final Sunday before Advent, now known as Christ the King Sunday. Every year on this Sunday, we get a different synoptic account of the Crucifixion. Before tackling Luke's account, it's worth noting how this version differs from the rest.

Matthew and Mark both tell us that those who were crucified with Jesus joined in the mocking: "And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left...Those who were crucified with him also taunted him (Mark 15:27, 32; see also Matthew 27:38, 44). With his singular focus on Jesus, John barely mentions the other criminals: "There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them" (19:18). Luke, however, seizes upon the opportunity to use these otherwise voiceless characters to further his message.

Luke tells us that one of the criminals join in the taunting, saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But, in a shocking move, the other criminal steps in to defend Jesus: "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." It's shocking not because a criminal is taking Jesus' side. Surely Luke has made the point that the outcasts have found a hero in Jesus. It's shocking because Luke portrays Jesus as someone who needs (or at least benefits from) someone else's defense. In the other crucifixion accounts, the majesty of Jesus shines through the crucifixion. Especially in John's version of the arrest, trial, conversation with Pilate, and crucifixion scene itself, the reader has no doubt that Jesus is in charge. But Luke gives the evangelistic control to a minor character--a criminal who was under the same sentence of execution as Jesus.

That's something I can get into. The rest of the lesson--the criminal's request for Jesus' remembrance and Jesus' promise that the criminal will be with him that day in paradise--I can do without. But this piece of remarkable testimony grabs my attention. Evangelism on the cross--not merely through the cross--and it's by someone other than Jesus.

Sometimes it's best to let Jesus speak for himself, but other times it's ok for us to say something on his behalf. He doesn't need us to, of course, but the world does. Not everyone sees the tragedy of the cross and discovers the majesty of the king. Sometimes people need those of us who see it to share it. This week, I'm not preaching on Sunday, but I am still an evangelist. I'm going to try to keep my focus on the thief whom I might normally dismiss. His testimony is important, and so is mine, and so is yours. How might we let the world see what is really going on in the gospel? How might we invite others to discover God's saving work in the story of Jesus?

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