Two other victims on the Cross (Lenten Study)

January 18th, 2022
Available from MinistryMatters

For more than twenty years, I have been teaching Vanderbilt Divinity School courses at Riverbend Maximum Security Institute (RMSI; we call it “Riverbend”). My divinity students and I drive to the prison, pass the various security checkpoints, and then hold class together with twelve to fifteen insider students. More often than not, the insiders ask the hard questions that the freeworld folks from Vanderbilt, many planning on entering Christian ministry, need to consider: sentencing and parole, repentance and forgiveness, trust and protection.

The insider students ask: “What were the stories of the two men who died with Jesus—what did they do? What were the circumstances that condemned them to death?” The insider students wonder: “Who cared for their bodies? Where were their friends? What were their names?” And they ask these ministers-to-be, “Do you remind your congregations that Jesus told the sheep at the final judgment, ‘I was in prison and you visited me’ (Matthew 25:36b)?”

I have also held classes, not sponsored by Vanderbilt, with men on death row. Sometimes, in one-on-one conversations, I would talk about a biblical text with men who spend twenty-three of twenty-four hours in a small cell; sometimes we could meet in a group around a table, with the guards not far away. They, too, had questions, even more pressing ones, about life and death, and the afterlife, about hope and despair. We once did a Passover seder on death row: there was no matzah and no wine, no bitter herbs and no hard-boiled egg. But we did have haggadahs, the text that recounts the story of the Exodus. We read the story, prayed the prayers, and sang the songs. But only I and my good friend Rev. David Phillipy (who has since died, may his memory be for a blessing) left the building. I cried on the way home, for I sensed a freedom, a palpable sense of freedom, that the other men at that seder table, would never have.

I cannot read the Gospel accounts of the two men crucified with Jesus and not think about my friends at Riverbend. My concern here is not to sentimentalize my insider students. Nor am I speaking about forgiving them for the crimes they have committed, since that is not my call. Only the victims and their loved ones impacted by the crimes have this right. Rather, my insider students have taught me, repeatedly, that they are individuals with families and friends, with stories of how they came to be sentenced to prison, with guilt and remorse. As one remarked, and here I am paraphrasing, “We are individuals, not just ‘the rapist’ or ‘the murderer.’ God-forbid that you would be known by the worst thing you ever did. We are human beings, just like you, in the image and likeness of God.” My insider students are my friends; the witnesses at the cross force us all to notice them, and to remember them.

Mark 15:22 (see also Matthew 27:33) describes the initial events at Jesus’s crucifixion: “They [the soldiers] brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha . . .” Five verses later, Mark announces, “And with [Jesus] they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left” (Mark 15:27; see also Matthew 27:38). John records the same information in different words: “And carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them” (John 19:17–18).

Luke, who was likely following Mark and possibly Matthew, makes two major editorial changes regarding the men crucified with Jesus. First, Luke 23:33, like John, connects the name of the location to the description of the three condemned to death: “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.” Second, only Luke presents a short interchange among the three victims. Luke reports,

"One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding (NRSV: the Greek means blaspheming] him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah [Greek: Christos]? 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.”

With these scenes, the Gospel writers challenge us to address several topics that many of us, myself included, would rather not engage, including the anonymity of so many imprisoned and executed people: the names we forget and the names we never know; the ongoing practices of torture and capital punishment; the horrible things that we say when we are desperate and in pain; and the fear that some of us have of dying, especially if we have not rectified and cannot rectify harm we have done to others.

Anyone who says biblical studies is easy, or that all we need is love, is living in a fantasy world. The Bible forces us to ask the hard questions, and it will not let us avert our eyes from sin and guilt. When we pick up the Bible’s challenge, we come closer to the group Jesus described when he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). We start with the explicit note in Mark and Matthew of the two men, “one on his right and one on his left,” which may be an allusion to Isaiah 53:12b–c, one of the “servant songs,” in which God’s suffering servant is described in the following terms: “He poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” The Gospel notice could also be an allusion to Psalm 22:16, “A company of evildoers encircle me.” On the other hand, Matthew and Mark may well be describing what actually happened.

We then hear from Gestas and Dismas—the names given to these men by tradition and not by the Gospels—directly. Their comments raise for us the pressing question of the crimes for which they are guilty: Are they bandits or thieves, or are they freedom fighters, or are they terrorists? Finally we focus on Luke 23:39–43 and the multiple issues raised by the conversation the three dying men have, a conversation that includes: the “blasphemy” of the first speaker, the connection of his comment to Satan’s temptation of Jesus, the importance of the second man’s “word of rebuke” in relation to the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” the exhortation to “fear God” in light of a concern for the final judgment, the acknowledgment of guilt but also the accepting of punishment (you can bet I’ll take issue with his claim that “we are getting what we deserve for our deeds”), and the proclamation of Jesus’s righteousness. We’ll understand what this penitent, dying man reveals about the kingdom Jesus has been proclaiming. And we’ll develop the implications of Jesus’s promise, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”


Exerpted from Amy-Jill Levine, Witness at the Cross (Abingdon Press, 2021), which shows how the people at the cross each have distinct roles to play. Each Evangelist presents a distinct picture of the death of Jesus. Each portrays different individuals and groups of people at the cross, each offers different images and dialogues, and so from each, we learn how those meanings and messages cross the centuries to any who would come to the cross today.

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