Meditations on Jesus' Words During His Suffering:
by Priest Symeon Elias (Robinson) -copyright 1996
(This article is an examination of the cries from the Cross, and some of the meanings one priest gives them. Originally written in 1996 as lenten articles and complied and edited for limited distribution in the fall of 2001.)
There is a common personality type that gloats in the misery of others. I know a woman (in fact many people) who when anyone is in trouble, difficulty, a death in the family, etc., - she is the first person to show up to "help." And indeed she is wonderful help, making coffee, cooking, cleaning, answering the phone, in fact doing anything she can to "help" - - - - As long as she can feel superior and gloat over the foolishness or ignorance or sadness or moral flaw that caused the trouble. Whatever the sordid details she will recount with glee - well with compassion in a sweet patronizing voice with glee just under the surface - always looking to catch an expression from the person to whom she is speaking that shows that they have taken in the worst of it. This person is on a life time quest to prove that all the people she knows are at their core just as base as she.
One of the thieves on the cross next to Jesus was such a one. Even in his dying moments, suffering the agony of crucifixion, he could not help but gloat in the misery of the man who "people said was somebody" - "Look at him now! He is nobody special! He puts his pants on one leg at a time just like me. For all his fancy talk and high minded ideas, look at what it got him."
"Hey, you stupid S.O.B. if you're the Son of God, like you claim. Why don't you cast yourself down from this cross and destroy your executioners?" And in that derisive statement is an ignorant arrogance that we see every day in people who are materially minded, who believe that humans are a collection of accidentally formed cell structures, who see only the human animal and do not understand the potential of the human spirit - stamped as it is in the image of God. This mentality we see in people who think that their mental and emotional capacities are the norm - that they are the "standard" by which all humanity is judged. And ANYONE who claims to be anything better - (it doesn't matter if the claiming is implicit or explicit - in the actuality of Spirit, and in the fruit of a life) is a liar and a hypocrite. As Saint Symeon the New Theologian said, they know nothing of the renewal, of repentance, of the power of the new life in Christ. Instead they know the bitterness of their own dashed hopes, exposed illusions, and failures.
What need did this Thief have but to see Jesus crumble under the pressure, whine and beg for mercy, to plead for his life, to beg God for help? Hoping against hope the cynical thief taunts Jesus, because his underlying life-mythology, the "philosophy" upon which he had based his life will fail if Jesus does not crack. The very look of peace in Jesus' eyes that is the truth of the depth of His spirit, has to fail, has to falter or our cynic the thief will have to face the futility and ignorance of his own life, admit the exposed illusions that placed him on his cross. We see that spirit still at work today, in people who must try and debase Jesus the man, two thousand years later, in people who find "offense" in the telling of his goodness. We find that spirit at work in the people who have a deep seeded need to prove that Jesus was "just" a man, like they are - the thought of the truth of his "being" is frightening to them. Many spend a life time focused on Jesus the Historic Figure, trying to "place him in context" to understand how a single man (who is just like any other man - just a victim of his circumstances) could so effect history, they being hypnotized by his person while all the time trying to "debunk the myth." This thief thought he was seeing the "myth" debunked before his very eyes.
Do you know anyone like the thief? A person who "validates him/herself" by the measure of the failure of others? My friend who is the very first one to show up to help if you are in trouble, is just such a one. She has failed at every endeavor in her life. Failed employment - never able to hold a job for any length of time, failed family relationships, failed friendships, failed relationships and marriages (seven) at last count - yet she is ready to "help" and hoping against hope that in your trouble she can find some justification to "come to understand" that you are really no different than her. Such a perspective always looks on the outside world, hoping to find justification for one's inside world. It never admits wrong, it never dares to look inside itself for its own failures and its march is a march toward a dark and bitter night of the soul. There is no bitterness so dark as the failure/cynic. And for this one, how true the cynicism seems to him/her based in a "clear" vision of "objective" reality. They are objectively all hanging on crosses dying ! ! There can be little doubt about that ! So our cynic thief looked at Jesus; a semi-popular "personality" and he laughed at the "objectively observed absurdity" of there circumstances - after all that "high talk" that together, they should end up as "crucifixion buddies."
The other thief has heard enough of the taunting, "Do you not fear God?" he asked. When one is faced with death, the reality of one's core being becomes glaringly apparent. There is nothing like an impending death to clear away the things that have hypnotized us, attracted us away from our core being, the things and people who have dominated us, the ideas and causes that have consumed us. Vedic writing has a saying, "A man cannot act contrary to the reality of his own nature." This at first seems a most cynical statement, but it is not. From the very moment of Jesus' humiliation we see him acting according to the truth of this statement. In the Garden when he "should" have been willing to fight, he was healing the ear of Malkus the Temple guard, whose ear had been severed by Peter's sword. When he should have been worried for his safety and careful what he said, he said the very things of truth that sent the Pharisees and the Sadducees into fits of outrage. When he should have defended himself before Pilate he used the moment to awaken in Pilate a new sense of reality and understanding of truth. When he should have been broken, following the beating and the abuse, he was praying for his attackers. When he should have been angry, he was praying for their forgiveness. When he should have been humiliated and debased for all time, his goodness shows through the clearest, in the sharpest focus - and the Man on the Cross, instead of becoming the man of shame and a symbol of hopelessness became the man of ULTIMATE VIRTUE and a symbol of ETERNAL HOPE.
This Vedic saying was true also for the cynic thief, he was acting from the core of his nature, his reality was his cynicism and unbelief, the reality of his person to the core. It is true also for the thief who speaks up in Jesus' defense. From the core of his nature, he is not deluded and does not view himself falsely as the cynic does and he says, "We suffer justly, we received the due reward of our deeds."
This truth hits the cynic thief's ears like a drill. The reality of his delusion, "we receive the due reward of our deeds" being the last thing he wanted to hear. "This Man, Jesus - has done nothing wrong." We don't know if this statement was from personal knowledge of Jesus or a simple and honest reading of the innocence before him. I cannot help but think that he looked into Jesus' eyes and just knew. He knew because he had not given up himself to some falsehood that blinded him from clear vision. He knew because he was thoroughly aware of his own failures and never discounted them. He knew because he could believe the reality of Spirit he had witnessed when the spikes were being driven into Jesus' wrists and feet and he heard him praying for the centurions. He recognized the reality of that precious Spirit and he knew and acted upon the truth of his own nature. "Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom."
What absurd talk for a pair of convicted criminals, both hanging on a cross side by side and one asking the other to be part of his Kingdom. This prayerful cry speaks of faith, he called Jesus Lord, recognizing that Jesus was different, - better - than himself. It speaks of the true objective reality that even as a condemned man hanging on a cross, Jesus had not lost his "lordly - dignity of Spirit." This man was dying, so it speaks of his belief in the after-life. It was from the reality of a spiritual nature that could see and grasp what he saw, from a ground of that faith was sparked this faith - while the self-justifying thief-cynic remained in his "observable-objective" reality and deluded himself until his last breath.
The cynic has to have felt the bitter irony, loosing his friend to a "king" who was dripping blood - hanging on a cross; his friend talking crazy talk about this man and a future they did not have. What frustration and futility must have filled his soul. But his friend was acting on marvelous faith and discernment that can only function in a person of honesty. This was no panicked "death bed repentance." It was instead a sincere, knowing, soulful, from the core of his being, in the truth of his spirit, "confession of faith."
Jesus did not "grant this man absolution." He simply stated the truth of the situation, he stated the recognition of the faith-filled spirit of this man and then stated the Obvious Fact. - "This day you will be with me in Paradise." I do not believe that Christian people experience death. (Christian people - meaning = truly spiritually alive people - people who have not given themselves over to delusion) There are too many reports from people who have been revived from "death" to doubt the reality of their stories of being in the room, watching there body as medical or rescue personnel work with them. They have not tasted death, they have merely stepped into Life. "This day you will, step into life with me."
One of the extra-canonical books (the gospel of Thomas) quotes Jesus as saying, "Seek me while I may be found, or dying you may look for me and not find me." "This day you have stepped into life with me, and we will walk to paradise." This is the reality of Catholic/Orthodoxy and indeed the Christian Faith, it is stepping into life with Jesus. Accepting the reality of the Man on the Cross and not spending a life time trying to make Him, "just like us." Yes he was like us in every positive way, in all the ways that speak of ultimate reality and all the ways that are not corrupted by our "sin." He was the first "example" of who we can all become in spiritual strength and power. We have that possibility of stepping into His Life, with him any time we choose, in the eternal Now of this life time and never tasting Death, but instead simply tossing off our "space/time/suit" and breathing the pure air of our new life. "THIS DAY" you will be with me in Paradise - the mystery of the death that is birth - and not to the same place and the same suffering and the same conflicts and the same fear and the same anger - like the low Hindu ideas - but a metempsychosis into something so much better it is called Paradise - for want of an earthly conception which could contain the description of it. And the description we are told by the Apostle Paul is in the Buddhist tradition of understanding what it is NOT:
Eyes have NOT seen.
Ears have NOT heard.
Man has NOT imagined in his deepest heart
The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.
But this is not the end of it because Paul clearly states that in the Mysterion, on an intuitive level of spiritual wisdom that is beyond human comprehension and expression we may "know." "But God has revealed them (the things to come) to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes the deep things of God." Further saying, that when you are in touch with your human spirit you learn human things, but when you become "attached" to the Spirit of God, in our New Life in Jesus Christ we learn things of God's Spirit. And here is the Mysterion - because it cannot be conveyed in "rational terms and concepts" - "These things we also speak, not in words which man's wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual." The Mysterion cannot be grasped by mental exercise "But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are perceived by the Holy Spirit in us." These are only hints at the reality of the Paradise that the 'faith-ful' thief stepped into that day. And to the cynic-thief it is simply hogwash.
When we look at the Cross, each of us stands in our person two-thousand years later - being represented by one of these two types of people, represented by these two thieves on the crosses next to Jesus. We are struggling in our person to make him just like us, or we are by faith attaching our future to his.