The good thief or the bad one, the choice is ours.
Jesus was clear; he said all along that believers are to renounce possessions and relations, deny themselves, take up the cross and follow (cf. Lk 14:25-33). Repeatedly, he talked about his death and resurrection (cf. Lk 9:22-26, 43-45). He tried to teach his disciples what that meant for them — that they were meant to die and rise, too, and to love like Jesus all the way through it.
But that’s a hard sell. Mark tells us how Peter struggled to accept it, how he rebuked Jesus when he first brought up the idea of his suffering and death (cf. Mk 8:31-33). To resist suffering, to resist death, to resist discomfort, to renounce the cross: When faith is weak, it’s easy to rationalize our way out of following Jesus here, turning away from the path of the Passion. It’s easy to turn our Christianity into mere comfort, into soothing platitudes of sentimentality and subtly replace the Faith with a sort of pious, devotional hedonism. Which, of course, becomes something other than Christianity entirely — no matter how Christian things remain in appearance. As St. John Henry Newman said once, our words — even words like “God” — can come to mean nothing; we can empty even our holiest words of any sort of meaning. That’s what happens when we don’t mind Jesus’ cruciform invitation. Such is the false Christianity that refuses to embrace suffering.
|November 20 – The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe|
2 Sm 5:1-3
Which is why Luke’s account of the dialogue betwixt the two criminals surrounding Jesus is so profound, so helpful to believers. It’s a passage worthy of our extended meditation. Now, the lesson is simple: one criminal refuses to see his calvary as anything other than an occasion for anger and bitterness. For him, it is simply injustice, simply violence. The only good would be to end the injustice and stop the violence; there is no other moral hope possible. This, of course, only deepens his tragedy, for there is no justice he can seize on his own; there is no way to stop the violence; he’s trapped. This, really, is the reason for his bitterness, the knowledge he’s trapped. That’s why it’s a sad bitterness, the kind that sometimes curses even God just to feel something. Hurt people yell at God like this every day. This belongs to the Good Friday that’s every day for so many.
The other criminal, however, sees it differently. He sees his calvary with the eyes of faith. He sees in Jesus someone who refused to play the Roman game; he operated by a different set of rules. Thus, Jesus must belong to a different world, this world he spoke of as a kingdom. He sees the sign put up there by Pilate; it was meant to be ironic. But with faith, this good criminal reads it and gets it. He is not consumed by bitterness; rather, from his pain comes his prayer. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42). And that’s when he first hears of paradise — after he dared to pray from within his pain.
Which is the opportunity whispered to us this Christ the King Sunday. Yes, injustice and violence abound — suffering, too. But how do we respond to it? What do we do? Do we curse our fate and everyone around us? Do we give into that bitterness? Or do we try to pray? Do we try to see even our suffering with the eyes of faith? That’s the challenge, indeed difficult. But it’s also what will decide paradise for us — how we live and die through our own calvary.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is pastor of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) and other books.