KATHLEEN RUSHTON reflects on the brief conversation between two dying men, Jesus and his companion, in Luke 23:35-43.
The Year of Mercy that began on 8 December 2015, ends on the feast of Christ the King, this month. During this Year we have contemplated and experienced the mystery of God’s mercy, of being mercied (literal translation of “shall have mercy shown to them” Matthew 5:7) and discovered anew the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, including Pope Francis’s eighth work, to care for our common home. The reading for the end of the Year of Mercy, Luke 23:35–43, has a significant two-verse dialogue between Jesus and another condemned person.
“Then he (the wrongdoer) said: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23: 42-42). In this exchange in Luke’s gospel we have the last words spoken by a human being to Jesus. And Jesus’ last words to a human being in his pre-resurrection life. How we treasure the last words of one we love.
The wrongdoer is the first person with the confidence to address Jesus in familiar terms for nowhere else in any gospel does a person address Jesus as “Jesus.” Elsewhere his name has qualifications suggesting reverence, for example, “Jesus Son of God” (Mark 5:7; Lk 8:28)) or “Jesus Son of David” (Mk 10:47; Lk 18:38). Raymond Brown describes the wrongdoer as having “disciple-like spontaneity.” Disciples are distinguished by their willingness to accept Jesus’ invitation and to follow him spontaneously. However, the wrongdoer does not wait for an invitation. He anticipates the words of Jesus to disciples: “Ask and it will be given to you.” (Lk 11:9).
This dying companion asks Jesus to remember him. And Jesus offers much more, for he not only saves but shows intimacy by including him as a disciple. At the last supper, Jesus says to the twelve: “You are those who have stood with me in my trials.” Because of this he promises them that they shall eat and drink at his table in his kingdom (Lk 22:28–30). Jesus promises the wrongdoer that he “will be with me.” Being with Jesus, suggests he will share more than Jesus’ company in paradise for like the twelve he will share in his resurrection. Jesus begins with “Truly (Greek text, amen) I tell... ” which gives solemnity to that which follows. Nothing can separate Jesus’ dying companion from God’s loving mercy.
Luke Adds Hope
Luke reshapes the abandonment and rejection of the execution scene in Mark’s gospel to one of hope and forgiveness. He inserts Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness (Lk 23:34). The people who stood watching are contrasted with the religious leadership who scoff, the mocking soldiers and the other wrongdoer. They deride Jesus with variations of: “Save yourself.” In contrast, “the other” (Lk 23:40) does not specify what “save” means. He owns his wrong-doing and acknowledges the justice of the punishment. His is the fourth acknowledgement of Jesus’ innocence (Lk 23:40; 23:14, 15, 22).
During his trial Jesus is clothed by Herod and his soldiers in “a splendid (white) garment” which suggests his innocence (Lk 23:11). The word lampros meaning radiating or shining is translated as splendid, white, elegant or rich. Australian scripture scholar, Michael Trainor, suggests that Jesus died still clothed in this garment — Jesus is “accompanied to his place of death by Earth’s wood and becoming transfixed to it; now he is clothed in Earth’s linen.”
Luke calls those crucified with Jesus by a generic term meaning an evildoer, criminal or malefactor (kakourgos), which has an unambiguously criminal sense. We find this word three times: the two are led away to be crucified (Lk 23:32); they are one on his right and one on his left (Lk 23:33); and one of them derides Jesus (Lk 23:39). Mark and Matthew call them bandits or revolutionaries (lestai). Luke uses this word when Jesus protested at his arrest: “Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit?” (Lk 22:52); when the Samaritan fell among bandits (Lk 10:30); and when in cleansing the temple Jesus accused the sellers of making God’s house into a den of bandits (Lk 19:46). Only John calls Barabbas a bandit.
Although crucifixion was used as punishment by many ancient peoples, there are very few descriptions and these come from Roman times. No ancient writer wanted to dwell on this cruel practice. In fact, the most detailed accounts are the gospel passion narratives. The frequency and the brutality of crucifixion as a tool of Roman oppression has been diminished by the tendency of Christians to theologise away its horrors, or particularise it to Jesus alone. This hideous form of execution threatened men and women. Men are recorded as being punished by crucifixion (defeated armies, piracy, threat to male leadership) and 22 cases of women’s crucifixion have been traced (violating the rights of a husband, sacrilege, child abuse, sorcery, extermination of a race/kinship group, punishment for abortion).
As Jim Consedine points out in his recent article (Tui Motu Sept 2016:4-5), prisons are a recent phenomenon. Punishment of offenders at the time of Jesus was in the hands of those who could impose penalties as they saw fit. In the case of crucifixion, the caprice and sadism of executioners were given full rein. The emphasis was on shame and public humiliation. Burial, an act of piety for Jews, was denied as the body was left for scavengers.
What does the request of Jesus’ dying companion mean for the Christian community today and for the condemned ones we call prisoners? Mary Rose D’Angelo says:
“re-membering conveys together the ideas of bringing what has been hidden out of the shadows of history, of putting together what has been dismembered and of making someone a member of oneself, of a community or the tradition in a new way.”
As death approaches, Jesus completes a final act of liberation which recalls his ministry declaration in the Nazareth synagogue: good news is given to a poor one, the captive is released and the oppressed one goes free (Lk 4:18-19). Jesus’ emphatic “today” points to now and links this incident with moments of salvation or revelation in this gospel story (Lk 2:11; 4:21; 5:26; 13:232–33; 19:9; 22:34, 61).
What does this means for us who live in a country with one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the developed world? Officially, the ministry to prisoners is through the Prison Chaplaincy Service of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCSANZ), which Churches formed to take responsibility for the appointment and management of prison chaplains under contract to the Department of Corrections. The Catholic Bishops Conference works closely with PCSANZ to provide Catholic Chaplaincy in all prisons. However, Corrections now defines chaplaincy in a much narrower role than previously, which means a funding decrease.
James K. Baxter recommended: “Bail people out of jail, visit them in jail, and look after them when they come out”. We need to make our mainly middle class parishes into an environment in which released prisoners who had discovered their faith in prison would feel welcome, as long-serving prison chaplain, Mary Kamo said on her retirement.
The end of the Year of Mercy reminds me of words I found at the end of my Camino pilgrimage: “The end is the beginning”. The end of the Year of Mercy is a new beginning of seeing and living through the lens of God’s mercy. In Jesus’ reply to his dying companion, God breaks into a situation that seems beyond mercy and hope. This is our encouragement.