The Penitent Thief on the Cross (Ken Pennings) 08.26.18

There may be a cross ahead of us, if we would confront the powers of Empire. But we have companions on the journey who remember us as we remember them.

Audio version of sermon


Earlier this summer, when I preached on Judas Iscariot, I shared from John Shelby Spong’s book Liberating the Gospels – Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes, how the story of Jesus’ passion was not the miraculous fulfillment of prophetic words from the past, as many of us have been led to think. Or to put it another way, it is not as if there are clues given in the Old Testament about what’s coming in the New. Instead, the Jewish Gospel writers created the narratives with bits and pieces of stories from their own Jewish Scriptures. This is an ancient style of Jewish storytelling called Midrash.

Spong argues that we will never understand the Gospels until we learn how to read them as Jewish books. They are written, to a greater of lesser degree, in the midrashic style of the Jewish sacred storyteller, a style that many of us have not yet become familiar with. This style is not concerned with historical accuracy.

Rather, the details that have been attached to the narratives on the death of Jesus, for example, can be found elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures! How much of these narratives can be seen as a midrashic reconstruction drawn from bits and pieces of the Jewish sacred tradition? The answer — almost every bit of the story.

We don’t have in the Gospels a literal story. Not even the most primary narrative of the cross was written as a description of what actually happened during the first Holy Week. What we have is a portrait, an interpretive painting if you will, that seeks to capture the essence of Jesus under the symbols familiar to Jewish people taken from their ancient Jewish scriptures. The Gospel writers would have us seek, in the interpretive painting they have drawn, the impact of the life of Jesus.

When Gospel writers created the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, they did so without knowing any firsthand details, since Jesus had died abandoned and alone. The first Christians, who were also Jews, had their sacred scriptures opened when his life was being interpreted, and the specific details of his life and death were actually written to conform to the ancient texts.

We are not reading history when we read the Gospels. We are listening to the experience of Jewish people, processing in a Jewish way what they believed was a new experience with the God of Israel. Jews filtered every new experience, including their experiences with Jesus, through the corporate remembered history of their people, as that history had been recorded in the Hebrew scriptures of the past.

We now turn to the two thieves who were crucified on the right and the left of Jesus. Why might the Gospel writers have included them in the crucifixion narratives?

It’s clear that the Church identified Jesus with the servant figure of Isaiah. The details of the life of the servant were gathered into the “remembered” life of Jesus.  (From Spong’s Liberating the Gospels, pages 253-255):

In Isaiah 53:9, we read that the servant “made his grave with the wicked…in his death.” Isaiah 53 concludes with these words: he “was numbered with the transgressors, yet he bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors” (53:12).

Sound like anything having to do with the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus?

These verses in Isaiah, under the skillful hands of the gospel writers, helped create narrative details in the crucifixion story. Mark started the narrative tradition based on these verses by asserting that “with him they crucified two robbers, one on the right and one on the left” (Mark 15:27). It is just a cameo appearance for the robbers. They do not speak, but Jesus was now “numbered among the transgressors” in his death. He was making “his grave with the wicked.”

Matthew added a small bit to the story of the robbers. He had them join in the derision and taunting of Jesus (Matt. 27:44).

Luke, having noted that Jesus made intercession for his transgressors as Isaiah had stated that the servant had done, developed the content of that intercession.

To those who crucified Jesus, Luke had Jesus say, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Next, he expanded the narrative of the two criminals (Luke 23:39-43). Only one was taunting and derisive in Luke. The other was remorseful and penitent.

Indeed there were other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures that shaped the story of the cross, most definitively, Psalm 22. But there has even been a suggestion that the pharaoh’s butler who was spared and the pharaoh’s baker who was not spared from the Genesis story of Joseph (Genesis 40) found reflection in the Lucan account of the penitent and impenitent thieves.

Who was the penitent thief on the cross, or Dismas, as he was named in the Gospel of Nicodemas? He was a character that entered the crucifixion narratives via Isaiah 53 to reinforce the early Church’s conviction that Jesus should be identified with Isaiah’s suffering servant.

We’ve looked at how and why Dismas might have come into the story, but what are we to make of his interesting conversation with Jesus in Luke’s Gospel?

What grabs me about this exchange is the phrase “Remember me.”

What tender, personal, hopeful words! How nice to be remembered!

A young child comes bounding up to you on a Sunday morning to be hugged and held – “She remembers me!”

Two friends reunite after decades of being apart – “He remembers me!”

A person in advanced stages of Alheimer’s has a brief moment of lucidity and calls a loved-one by name – “She remembers me!”

Not only do we hope to be remembered, but it’s important to us to remember others!

Others who have impacted our lives in significant ways who are no longer with us – We remember them!

Others throughout history whose witness and work have helped to create for us a more just, compassionate and peace-filled world – We remember them!

Others who have sacrificed life and limb in military combat. Many who return home from war suffering from PTSD and other handicaps – We remember them!

Others who are on the margins of society, who are in desperate need, who are so easily forgotten – We remember them!

And consider this tender exchange between Dismas and Jesus at the scene of the crucifixion. ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 23:43).

This might have been a penitent request for mercy, but I’m wondering if it might have been something else altogether.

Though it’s likely that Jesus died entirely forsaken and alone, with no loved ones witnessing his pain or listening to his cries, it’s fascinating to me that Luke writes into the scene a friend who companions with Jesus on his journey toward death. Every one of us, from the greatest to the least, needs people to companion with us through our darkest moments.

AFF member, Dan Rossmiller, my research assistant for this sermon, raised a very interesting question, “If these who were crucified alongside Jesus were truly robbers, highwaymen if you will, then it stands to reason that they were probably pretty bad dudes. However, if they, like Jesus, were being crucified for rebellion against the Roman Empire, then maybe they weren’t malevolent, but had just had it with the taxes and the foreign invaders controlling everything. Do Jesus and the good thief, in the end, realize that they are fellow travelers, so to speak, united against the Empire?”

Might it be possible that Dismas and Jesus look on each other with mutual respect, compassion and appreciation for the courage it took to stand against empire, to stand with the oppressed and afflicted, no matter the cost?

Might they be sharing in their very last breaths an affirmation of the values of the kingdom of God over against the values of empire? Standing with the poor, the afflicted, the oppressed against empire had led to execution, but someone had to do it!

There may be a cross for us too, if we would confront the powers of Empire. But we have companions on the journey who remember us as we remember them.

Most of us have tasted from the crucible of suffering. It’s hard enough to suffer. But it’s even harder to suffer alone.

Roman Catholics regard Dismas as the patron saint of those condemned to death. We may not be condemned to death, but having a companion like Dismas through life’s death-like experiences may be exactly what we need!

In these next moments, I invite you to write on your slip of paper the name of a person who companioned with you in the toughest moments of your life, perhaps a person who joined you in the struggle for justice, equality and peace, perhaps a person who supported you when you were too weak to carry on, perhaps a person who loved you when all others abandoned you.

Who is that special person who remembered you, recognized you, affirmed and validated you?

Identify the person, by name or otherwise, along with the remembrance. I’ll give you the option of sharing your remembrance publicly, or expressing your remembrance quietly in your heart.

A few examples: I remember my 10th grade French teacher Gerald Fitzgerald, who built up my self-esteem and helped me believe I could accomplish anything.

I remember Cancer Surgeon Paul Gagnon who, 26 years ago, performed a risky surgery on my 8-year-old son Matthew, and saved his life.

I remember Catholic Peace Advocate Phillip Berrigan who said, “If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.”

I remember the 415 firefighters and police officers who gave their lives trying to rescue the victims of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Now please write your remembrance.

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