When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
A Reflection on Luke 23:33-43
“Are You not the Messiah?” This question jumped right out of the screen when I read this passage. When I’ve heard this passage talked about in the past the man who asks this question always gets a bad rap. It’s often assumed that he is mocking Jesus. He’s the “bad” thief and the one that rebukes him is the “good” thief. And maybe the bad thief was mocking Jesus when he asked the question, but I also feel that this question is one that we all ask in the face of intense suffering even if we’re not ready to admit it. I’m not talking about having a bad day or a bad week. It’s not all that difficult to trust God then, but what I’m talking about is intense suffering, when you feel like everything is falling apart and your entire life is coming undone and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. In that place, there is a part of us that says, “Jesus, I don’t understand. Are you not the Messiah? Are you not the One? Do you not see the condition I’m in? I am in agony! Jesus, do something! Are You not the Messiah?
I can remember feeling like that and asking those types of questions and waiting for a response. I’ve had periods of depression in the past on and off, but in 2008 I slipped into a deep dark pit of depression that almost swallowed me whole. It started gradually. I felt a heaviness around me, but it kept getting heavier and heavier until it hurt to even take a breath. In December I noticed that I had lost a couple of pounds. No big deal I thought. I have a fast metabolism and I lose weight easily. In January I lost three more pounds. February: another couple of pounds. March: 3 pounds. April: 3 more pounds. May: 4 pounds and by June I had lost a total of 20 pounds because I was too depressed to eat. My pants barely fit me anymore. I could count all my ribs standing in front of the mirror. I was slowly dissolving into nothing inside and out. I couldn’t see God. I couldn’t hear God. I couldn’t feel God even though God was probably closer to me than ever. I never felt so alone.
I want you to close your eyes for a moment and think about a time when you felt just like that and you felt like saying, “Jesus, I don’t understand. Are you not the Messiah—then why am I in so much pain? Jesus, do something, anything!” Now open your eyes and take a deep breath. It’s ok. You’re not the only one to ever ask such questions or feel such feelings. Intense suffering can make us feel like God isn’t God anymore. Maybe you grew up without a father. Maybe you never had a family that you could rely on to begin with and always had to look to people on the outside to be mother and father and sister and brother to you. Maybe you’re battling a horrible disease like cancer and you’re only in your twenties. Maybe you’ve experienced a great deal of loss in such a short span of time and you can’t help but wonder where is God now? Is God even real?
But your pain is not the end of your story just like the cross was not the end of the story for Jesus and somehow Jesus knew that. If his life was all about radical welcome than his death was about radical trust, radically trusting God when you can’t see God and you can’t hear God and you can’t feel God, but knowing that God is there because God promised to always be there and believing in the face of agonizing pain that God can be trusted. And for the one thief, even while hanging on a cross he was able to see Jesus in the midst of his pain and it made all the difference; it saved his life.
Despite the intensity of the pain of life, don’t make the mistake that the other thief on the cross made and fail to recognize the God who is always right by your side, bearing your pain with you. The voice you hear in your head that tells you, you are all alone is a lie. God is with you, bearing your pain with you. And your story doesn’t end there. Your pain is not the end of your story, but a gateway to a new beginning if you just hold on long enough to realize that Jesus is always right there with you.