16 April 2019

The “unbelieving” thief.

Mark 15.27, 32, Matthew 27.38, 44, Luke 23.32-33, 39.

Okay. Did the believing thief, now the unbelieving thief.

The gospels state two thieves were crucified with Jesus—

Mark 15.27 KWL
They crucified two thieves with Jesus: One on the right, one at his left.
Matthew 27.38 KWL
38 Then two thieves were crucified with Jesus, one at right and one at left.
Luke 23.32-33 KWL
32 They brought two others with Jesus, evildoers to be done away with.
33 When they came to the place called Skull, there they crucified Jesus and the evildoers,
who were at right and at left.

—but they never did identify them, so Christian tradition named ’em Dismas and Gesmas. Never did say which one was on the right, and which was on the left. All we know was at first, both were railing at Jesus—

Mark 15.32 KWL
“Messiah, king of Israel, has to come down from the cross now, so we can see and believe him.”
And those crucified with Jesus insulted him.
Matthew 27.44 KWL
Likewise the thieves crucified with Jesus insulted him.

—and then Dismas had a change of heart, asked Jesus to remember him, and Jesus offered him paradise.

Whereas all Gestas has gone down in history for doing is saying this:

Luke 23.39 KWL
One of the hanging evildoers was slandering Jesus, saying,
“Aren’t you Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

Popularly this is interpreted as Gestas’s unbelief. Because he was slandering Jesus: He was calling him things he’s not. Most folks misinterpret ἐβλασφήμει/evlasfímei as “hurled insults,” like the NIV has it. (It’s similar to the KJV’s “railed.”) But the proper translation is to blaspheme, or slander. Gestas wasn’t simply cussing Jesus out. He was saying stuff he deep-down knew wasn’t so. He knew Jesus is Messiah—but was too angry, too much in pain, to confess it.

Same as a lot of antichrists. They know who Jesus is. They realize he’s not exaggerating; his followers haven’t just taken an obscure Galilean rabbi and made up stuff about him; Jesus is on the level, and he’s Lord. But they don’t wanna follow him. Don’t wanna repent. Don’t wanna submit. Don’t wanna let go of their rage and bitterness. They’d rather die first. As Gestas literally did.

“Why isn’t God granting my wishes?”

Part of the reason Gestas was furious with Jesus is in his demand, “Save yourself and us!” He was nailed to a cross, same as Jesus. Not just tied to it, like the movies and art depict, as if only Jesus got the worst of it; nailed. Four spikes through the wrists and ankles, through the most sensitive nerves in the body, guaranteed to be non-stop agony till he died—sometimes days later. (Although because Sabbath was at sundown, the Romans “mercifully” killed the victims later that day—by breaking their legs so they could no longer pull themselves up to breathe.) Every minute was suffering.

Gestas didn’t want to end his suffering by dying, but by getting rescued. And here right next to him… was Messiah! The anointed king of Israel. The guy who’d rescue Israel from Rome, if Pharisees were to be believed. So if he’s really Messiah, shouldn’t his followers come rescue him so he could achieve the Pharisee End Times prophecies? Since Jesus was widely known for his miracles—curing the sick, multiplying food, throwing out devils—shouldn’t he have access to God’s supernatural might in this situation too? Why on earth was he permitting the Romans to kill him?—he should be able to speak a word and end his own pain! What was wrong with him?

See, very few of us have the patience to tolerate a moment of what Jesus did. If we could put a stop to it, we absolutely would. If we could put a stop to others’ pain, we absolutely will. We’ll give them the very best painkillers there are. We’ll give ’em morphine, heroin, whatever. We’ll even kill them, and justify it by saying it was out of mercy.

So Gestas was in agony—and wanted to know why Jesus, who had the power to immediately stop it, wouldn’t. It’s basic theodicy: Why does a good God put up with such evil things in his universe?

But when people are in great pain, they don’t truly want an explanation. They only want the pain to stop. Gestas didn’t care what Jesus’s thinking or plan was. Didn’t care that, as the thief on the other cross pointed out, they totally deserved crucifixion. He wanted off the cross. Jesus could get him off the cross, but wouldn’t. So to Gestas’s mind, Jesus sucked.

And how often do other people, Christians included, think the very same way? When we’re suffering—even when the suffering is our own fault, the natural or legal consequence of our own sin or stupidity—we don’t care God tried to warn us away from it, never promised us a suffering-free life, frequently lets things naturally unfold, or is even gonna make something redemptive out of what we’re going through. We don’t care about God’s will. We want our will to be done.

Gestas isn’t any different than most of humanity. Let’s not judge him as if we’re any better than he. If we were in his shoes—or on his cross—we’d likewise be screaming for Jesus to get us out of there. Really, we’d be nuts if we didn’t.

But the fact we’d even be screaming at Jesus means, to some tiny degree, we do believe. Otherwise we wouldn’t waste our breath. (Especially considering how painful it was to even get a breath when you’re being crucified!) We believe enough… to be majorly disappointed in God.

Of course we oughta have more faith than that. Enough to trust God regardless. So we’d better pray. Because, God forbid, we may one day find ourselves in Gestas’s type of situation, where things look terrible and we’re furious at God for not giving us an obvious escape. We’d better pray for the faith strong enough to overcome even that. ’Cause we never do know when we’ll need it.