John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
John’s Passion, read on Good Friday, is laconic about what happened that day: “There, they crucified him, and with Him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle” (John 19: 18).
John is silent about those two. In contrast to Luke, whose Passion we read on Palm Sunday (see Luke 23: 32, 39-43), John says nothing about their being criminals. He does not relate the conversation between Jesus, Dismas, and Gestas, the traditional names given to the two. He says nothing about Jesus’ promise of salvation to the repentant Dismas. All John adds is that, in contrast to Jesus who is pierced to certify His death, the soldiers finished them by breaking “the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other” (v. 32).
Jesus’ death between two thieves was part of the ignominy and injustice of His sentence: as the First Reading of Good Friday puts it, “a grave was assigned him among the wicked and a burial place with evildoers” (Isaiah 53:9). In Roman practice, those who were crucified were often left on the cross until they rotted away, were plucked as carrion, or buried in a mass grave. That Pilate was willing to tolerate releasing and/or removing the bodies “because the Jewish preparation day” was imminent was a concession.
In his meditation on Good Friday, the late Slovak cardinal Jan Chryzostom Korec points out, however, that Jesus was exactly where He wanted to be. Note that, in John’s Gospel, Jesus is clearly in charge of His destiny: “so they took Jesus and carrying the cross by Himself …” (John 19: 17)
We know nothing about those two: how long they were arrested, when they were sentenced, when their execution was planned. As Korec writes, “the two wrongdoers crucified along with Jesus were to complete and supplement His condemnation. We don’t know if it was an accident. Everything indicates the intention of putting Jesus on the level of a wrongdoer.” As II Corinthians (5:21) puts it: “He was made sin for us.”
And Jesus “accepted it. And the Father allows that the Son will not die in majestic solitude, but alongside evildoers. Jesus lived among people; He lived among sinners and He died among sinners. He, the friend of sinners, remains their friend until the very last. He dies like them and dies with two of them. We know that it was not in vain—He saved one of them at the last moment. And He saved him for eternity.”
Jesus is criticized by the Pharisees for “receiving sinners and eating with them.” And, although they calculated the manner of His death as a humiliation, He died with them – still receiving them into the banquet of Paradise (Luke 23:43).
Two lessons for us:
- No one is beyond redemption, and no one is ignored by the Son. Jesus is a King of sinners who wanted to change, not some tragic figure dying alone, bereft of sympathy for those for whom He underwent the cross. The Man who “forgives them, for they know not what they do,” was certainly ready to add Gestas and Barabbas and Judas to the ranks of the saved. But if there is a “rock” impossible for even God to lift, it is the free will of a stony heart that will not ask forgiveness.
- It’s never too late. Dismas had minutes, at most hours, before he would die. He would still suffer on the cross and have his leg bones broken. He could have believed his situation was hopeless. But even a smidgen of hope is enough to let God in. Think of that if you imagine you’ve wasted Lent. It’s never too late.
All translations from Rok nad evanjeliom (Bratislava: LUC, 2000 and all views herein are exclusively those of the author.