Anyone who has spent much time talking with people who are incarcerated cannot help but notice that anger usually lies deep within the criminal heart. Perhaps the source of anger springs from a dysfunctional family of origin, a deep childhood wound or a profound social injustice experienced as an older person, but we cannot be surprised that anger is often a common thread behind criminality. This emotion out of control can help explain why people fly airplanes into skyscrapers, why husbands physically and verbally abuse their wives and all other sorts of evil actions.
But if we are honest with ourselves, anger is not just someone else’s problem. It is our own as well. In some sense, it lies at the root of every one of our sins. We find that the world around us is not as we would like it. We blame God for this state of affairs and try to strike back at Him by disobeying His commandments. We do not give God His due. We do to others things that we would not like others to do to us. As we draw near to the close of this Year of Mercy that our Holy Father Pope Francis has decreed, we will use today’s Gospel as a means of reflecting on how we as Christians should respond to the human wreckage that anger causes in our lives by seeking Divine Mercy.
The Gospel speaks of two criminals crucified along with Christ, our Lord. Other translations call them revolutionaries. The most common translation historically is thieves. Thus, we refer to the good thief who sole heaven at the last moment and the bad thief who, through cursing God even to the end of his life, chose eternal separation from God in hell. What can we know about these characters?
These two were almost certainly not people who were pickpockets or robbed homes here and there, but were more likely rebels against Roman occupation who sought to finance their resistance by stealing from the rich and powerful, kind of like Robin Hood. They were something similar to an organized crime movement and a band of freedom fighters wrapped into one. They probably hated the Romans and viewed them as foreign oppressors whom they wanted to fight with everything they had.
Nor did they likely have warm feelings for the powers that were among their own people the Jews. They certainly would not have liked the Sadducees, who controlled the Sanhedrin or Jewish Council. The Sadducees were upper-class Jews who had sold out the little guy in order to strike a deal with the Romans wherein they kept their power and money. Nor would these two thieves have liked the other influential group in Judea in the first century, the Pharisees. The Pharisees prayed a lot and knew the Bible very well, but they were often more concerned with protecting their wealth and prestige than they were in worshiping the Lord with a pure heart and doing right by others.
Since they could not express their anger at the ballot box, the two thieves did so by joining a rebel movement. Eventually, the Roman authorities caught them and sentenced them to death by crucifixion along with Jesus on Good Friday. At first, both thieves cursed our Lord as they hung on their crosses. They reminded Jesus of all of the miracles that He had worked– the healings, exorcisms and many others when they said, “If you are really the Messiah, the great King, why don’t you save yourself and us as well?” On one level, these words are the desperate cry of a dying man who is looking for any way out of his fate. On another level, these words drip with the worst kind of angry cynicism that lashes out against others even until the last moment of life.
For one of the thieves, anger and rage against God and neighbor did not have last word. What could have possibly occasioned this change of heart that led the good thief say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom?” What means did divine grace employ in order bring about such a dramatic change of heart?
We ponder what the good thief might have seen that changed his heart. He saw Christ hanging on the Cross. At first, he just saw just another condemned criminal. But something about Jesus touched his heart. He heard our Lord say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” One of the most challenging and beautiful elements of our Christian faith is forgiveness. For a Christian, forgiveness is not an option. We simply must forgive others. In the Lord’s prayer, we say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” For the good thief, this message of radical forgiveness opened a door to him out of the anger that had imprisoned him for years. He thought that this anger and all of the sins that flowed from it defined who he was. But Jesus said, no. Recognize the error of your ways and ask for mercy and my heavenly Father will forgive you. He will wipe the slate clean. The door of God’s forgiveness stands wide open until judgment day.
The good thief also saw those who stood by the foot of the Cross, Mary, the mother of God, John, the beloved disciple, and Mary Magdalene, out of whom our Lord had cast seven demons. These faithful few are all that were left of the Kingdom of God that Christ proclaimed at the beginning of His public ministry. And to this faithful remnant, Jesus speaks words that indicate that His kingdom, the Church, is above all a family. Turning to John, who represents every Christian disciple, He said, “Son, behold, your mother.” And to Mary, He said, “Woman, behold your son.”
In the Kingdom of God, each one of us are brothers and sisters of the same Lord! That means that as brothers and sisters, we share a common mother, the Mother of Jesus. The good thief saw that he could not only receive forgiveness, but he could also become a member of God’s family by turning to Christ. Anger separates us from others. Mercy and forgiveness make it possible for us to belong to each other in mutual love.
Moved by this alluring vision of forgiveness and belonging, the good thief let go of his anger and addressed himself to Our Lord and said, “Jesus remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” In other words, I confess that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the King of Heaven. I am a sinner. Forgive my many sins and make me your brother in your Kingdom. Let’s make these words our own, by acknowledging our own anger and rebellion against God and coming to Him for mercy.
And what words does Jesus address to us, who plead for Him to remember us? “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
But we cannot avoid acknowledging that the season of mercy will not last forever. Yes, the good thief stole heaven by seeking mercy. However, we have every reason to believe that the other thief died in his sins and is in hell. We ask for the grace to recognize that this season of mercy will not last forever and to open ourselves to grace, confess Jesus as Lord and repent of our sins while we still have the chance. Our eternal destinies depend on our response.