It takes all four gospels to get the full picture of Jesus’ crucifixion. Mark’s version doesn’t have the detail we get elsewhere on the thieves crucified beside Jesus, just that they “joined in the mockery”. I heard a fascinating take on this part of the story from Leonard Sweet at the Northwest Leadership Institute. I liked it so well, I shared it at last Thursday’s Lenten service. Here it is:
Good Friday is not the story of one person dying. It is the story of three people dying. Karl Barth was fond of pointing this out. He said that Jesus alone on the cross does violence to the story. Because Jesus was not alone. Jesus was with two others who were sharing intimately in his suffering and in his death.
There’s a wonderful collection of Karl Barth sermons printed under the title Deliverance to the Captives. They were preached to prisoners in Basel, Switzerland near the end of his life. That is so like Jesus, to bring the best to the least!
Jesus died with prisoners on either side of him. And Jesus has a conversation with them. One of them taunts Jesus. “If you really are the Son of God, save yourself! And while you’re at it, save us, too!” And how does the other thief respond? He says “Shut up!” I think that’s what “he rebuked him” means in common English. He says, “We deserve this. He doesn’t.” And then he says something else: “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” That’s when Jesus says, “You will be with me in paradise.” The first convert in heaven was a convict.
Good Friday is the story of three people dying, one good, two bad, one of whom became good.
Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered, there am I in the midst of them.” Jesus on the cross was in the midst of these two others. Jesus made three. The first church consisted of three people, one good, two bad, one of whom became good. So, if you call yourself a church, I have a question for you. Where are your bad people? If you’re a church with no one in it but good people, you’re not a church by the New Testament definition.
There were three crosses, three people who were dying. Two of them were thieves. We could actually even say, all three of them were thieves. Watch out for that third thief! He stole from the adulterous woman her shame. He stole from the man who couldn’t see his blindness. He stole from Nicodemus his respectability. He stole from Zacchaeus his livelihood. He stole from his disciples their cowardice. He stole from the poor their hopelessness. He stole from the proud their arrogance. He stole everything that wasn’t nailed down. He even stole condemnation from someone who was nailed down. “You will be with me in paradise.” Watch out for that third thief!
In Him (that third thief),