St Luke draws an important distinction in the first line of our Gospel text today. He says, “The people stayed there before the Cross watching Jesus. As for the leaders, they jeered at him.” He distinguishes carefully between the response of the people and their leaders. It is the leaders who mock Jesus not the people. The people stay at the Cross reverently watching Jesus saying nothing.
We should clearly understand that whenever the Church makes reference to the role of the Jews in its liturgy it does not mean a whole race. It is not the entire People of Israel who condemn Jesus and bring about his death but the leaders of the day; those who have a self-serving interest this act of political expediency.
By pointing out that the people stayed and watched Jesus die on the Cross St Luke is drawing attention not to their passivity but to their expectation that something was about to happen. He implies that they are open-minded, indeed that they are open to conversion.
The people seem to understand that Jesus was no ordinary man and that this was, therefore, no ordinary death. No doubt a few of them actually realised that there was something about Jesus that was going to affect their lives in a deeply personal way.
This is confirmed a few verses later when St Luke tells us that many left the scene “beating their breasts”. These ordinary people are clearly moved at the death of Jesus and are full of sorrow. To beat one’s breast is a clear sign of repentance and by this action we understand that the people are deeply affected by his death and perhaps even that it is a moment of conversion for some of them.
However, the main focus of the Gospel reading is surely the interplay between the two criminals crucified alongside Jesus. Just as the attitude of the people is contrasted with that of their leaders so is the attitude of the good thief compared with the one who abuses Jesus. But here the focus is much sharper.
The abusive thief is angry. He lashes out at anyone within range even at Jesus his fellow victim who can hardly be responsible for his situation. This is contrasted with the resigned attitude of the Good Thief who accepts his fate and his own responsibility for it. His words to the Bad Thief are interesting, “You got the same sentence as he did.”
The word used in Hebrew means both judgement and sentence so we can see this at two levels; all three are under the same sentence of death but all three in the moment of their death also face the judgement of God.
This makes sense of the Good Thief’s earlier words, “Have you no fear of God at all?” The Good Thief is reminding his fellow criminal that they are approaching the moment of truth, the moment of divine judgement, and that this is not the time to be angry and blame other people but the moment to look inwards, to admit guilt and seek repentance from God.
He then calls on Jesus to “remember” him when he comes into his Kingdom. The Biblical use of this word “remember” is much deeper than just calling to mind. In a real sense it means “to make present”. If Jesus remembers him then by this action the Good Thief will be brought into the Kingdom of Heaven.
We have come to the culmination of the Liturgical Year. We have experienced in the liturgy all the principal events of Christ’s life. In a liturgical way we have accompanied him right through from his conception to his ascension into heaven. We have gone over the main content of his teaching and examined the miracles and those moments when he let his glory be seen.
Having walked with him throughout the year we now conclude with this great Feast of Christ the King and through our celebration of it we are reminded of the most important thing of all. We are reminded that each one of us will face death and judgement and that each one of us must do what we can while there is still time to prepare ourselves for that awesome day. And this means, in a word, that we must repent. We must acknowledge our own sinfulness and hopelessness and turn to God in all humility asking him to save us and heal us.
The Christian life is a life lived in acknowledgement of our utter dependence on God. This means that conversion is at its very heart. But conversion is not a one-off thing; no, it is a constant process. We have to continually remind ourselves that without God we are nothing and that we should therefore give him first priority in everything that we say or do. This is not easy; but the best starting point is that we want to do it, that we have the desire to give our lives to God always in our hearts. At least then when we fail, we will recognise that we have done so and it will be all the easier to repent and begin again.
When thinking about these things it is always good to think in terms of right–relationship. If we get into our heads the correct attitude we ought to have in our relationship with God then it will always be easy for us to see the way ahead. We know that he is the author of all life and that we are his creation; we realise that despite our constant desire to be independent of God we are actually totally subservient to him. We understand that we owe him our lives and we know very well that if he withdrew his attention from us just for a brief moment we would not continue to exist.
Christ is our King; he is king of our lives, he is king of our destinies, he is the king of all of creation. He is the ruler; we are the ruled. He is the healer; we are the patient. He is the saviour; we are the saved.
It is to him that we owe obedience, and it is to him that we pay honour and worship. He is so far above us that we pale into insignificance in comparison. And yet the wonder is that he loves us and wants to raise us up to be with him forever.
Once we understand our true position in relation to him, we cannot put ourselves first in life any more. Once we understand our true position in relation to him, we can be sure that he will always be first in our hearts, first in our thoughts, first in our lives.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket