Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 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. And the people stood by, watching; 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.” – Luke 23:32–43 (New Revised Standard Version)
My dad’s been a church musician for years. I cut my musical teeth filling in where needed: whichever instrument, whichever voice part. Also: whichever role in the large-scale musicals the church staged, where I was an odd combination of ringer and gofer. Sometimes I sang the role that was too high or too difficult for others. Other times I was called on for thankless work, like the time I had to understudy—not play, understudy—the back half of a two-man donkey costume.
One role fell into both categories. My dad cast me as the criminal who dies on Jesus’ right, mostly because we had this great wailing epic of a song for the character to sing. But first I had to hang on a cross for what seemed like hours, wearing just this weird diaper thing, while Jesus and the choir sang last word after last word. (Pity the guy on Jesus’ left; at least I got a song.)
My much-younger sister has a vivid childhood memory of walking into church and seeing me hanging up there. First she was scared. Then she figured out that it was a play, but she was confused because she hadn’t heard that I was playing Jesus. Finally she realized that I wasn’t — I was just some other guy being crucified.
We don’t always remember the two unnamed criminals who die alongside Jesus.
And even when we do, we tend to see them mostly for their contrast with him: Jesus is God; they are not. They are champion sinners; he’s the only sinless one. In Luke’s telling, one of the two finds redemption just before death, while Jesus is the one proclaiming this redemption. They’re foils.
But that’s at best half the story. We’re near the climactic point of Luke’s gospel here. By now we’ve seen endless examples of one of this book’s central themes: that Jesus is most at home not with society’s leaders but with its outcasts. The extra crosses may seem like an insult-to-injury kind of thing: why should the incarnate God be executed—and in the company of common criminals? But Luke gives us reason to imagine that Jesus might have seen their presence as an honor, a small comfort in his agony.
And another thing: in this case, Jesus isn’t slumming it with people way beneath him on society’s ladder. He’s a criminal, too.
The criminal on the right tells the other one that they “are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong,” and it’s easy for us to hear this as, “We’re real criminals, but he was wrongly convicted.” But the man’s previous sentence is key: “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?” All three of them are condemned criminals. Jesus isn’t put to death by a horrible judicial mistake; he’s tried and condemned according to the law of the land.
The problem is that the law of the land is itself deeply violent and unjust.
So when I see an image of three crosses, I don’t think of the fact that Jesus was made to die among people who were so much less than he was. I think of the fact that my God is a criminal—and that his life, death and resurrection subvert the power of unjust earthly rulers and ultimately overthrow it.
- Steve Thorngate