Witness at the Cross: The Other Victims
March 5, 2023
39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.” 43He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
The Word of God that is still speaking. Thanks be to God.
Witness at the Cross: The Other Victims
Two men being crucified on either side of Jesus. One on the left. One on the right. Both men, according to the Greek word of Matthew, were robbers: meaning one who openly steals. Sometimes as part of a band of robbers, or bandits. Maybe even marauders. Knowing this translation, it may cause us to wonder, were they revolutionaries challenging the authority of the Roman-controlled government? Maybe even terrorists? We don’t know. Whatever their crime was, it earned them the sentence of crucifixion, a sentence reserved for criminals who threatened the stability of the government. And to be publicly executed, as if to say to bystanders – take care that this does not become your fate! In a sense, those on Jesus’ right and left, who had perpetrated a crime, were also victims of Rome’s cruel practice of crucifixion. They were both perpetrators and victims. Life cannot be boiled down into simple, mutually-exclusive categories. Our lives are messy.
Mark and John simply call them the others who were crucified with Jesus. Luke called them criminals. None called them thieves, contrary to the familiar phrase of the thieves on the cross. Thievery implies a stealthy crime, one done in secrecy or under cover of night – robbers connotes doing it done in plain sight.
Crucifixion was public to bring fear into the hearts of the witnesses.
We cringe at the memory not so long ago of the vileness of a lynching–not state sanctioned but designed to instill fear and intimidation among its victims. A lynching itself was heinous crimes, for which few perpetrators were ever asked to pay the price. Who was the perpetrator and who was the victim of those crimes? The powerful simply exacted violence upon the less powerful or those who were different that they chose to hate. In Rome’s day and also in ours.
Back to the witnesses at the cross. Only Luke’s gospel tells us more about the men on either side of Jesus. The one on the left cries out to Jesus, “save me.” What he had in mind was, if you are the miracle worker you are supposed to be, get me down from this cross. Let me escape. His request reminds me of the devil’s tempting of Jesus in the wilderness to save himself and claim power for himself. Jesus refused the devil’s tempting, saying one does not put God to the test. Likewise, Jesus refused to get the criminal down from the cross.
But the one on the right? He gets Jesus! First he acknowledges that he and the other criminal were guilty of the crime for which they were sentenced, and he rebukes the other criminal for displaying no fear of God and trying to manipulate Jesus.
The one on the right understood Jesus. He saw Jesus was blameless yet sentenced to suffer like him.
He became the first witness to testify that Jesus saves us not from this world but for eternal life. He is the first one to publicly testify to Jesus’ saving power at the cross, saying, Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom. And Jesus responds; yes, you will be with me.
Amy-Jill Levine, author of Witness at the Cross, brings up thought-provoking questions about perpetrators and victims. Levine has, for many years, had a ministry inside a Nashville prison. She speaks of getting to know the insiders (as she calls them) and seeing them as individuals with hurts and pains, just like those on the outside, many of whom know God, all of whom had pressing questions about life and death. She said, “The insider students ask: ‘What were the stories of the two me who died with Jesus – what did they do? What were the circumstances that condemned them to death? Who cared for their bodies? … Where were their friends? What were their names?’” 
Then she said they asked her, “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)?” Those she encountered on death row had even more pressing questions “about life and death, about the afterlife, about hope and despair.” 
Not a week of news goes by that we don’t hear about a person seeking to be released from prison after serving a period of time. This week, Pamela Smart was in the news. She hopes the State of New Hampshire will set her free. She has been in prison since the age of 22, when she was found guilty of orchestrating the murder of her husband by persuading her teenaged lover to kill him. Quoting a news story, “She calls her[s a] ‘sentence of extermination, life without parole.’” But then she said, “‘As long as I have God, I have hope and I have a shot,’”
Her story was well-known, inspired the 1995 film, “To Die For,” starring Nicole Kidman and Joaquin Phoenix. Since she was in the public eye, she has become a leader among the prisoners and a minister to them. She long denied her guilt and only recently has hinted she might accept her guilt. This long-standing denial has caused others to doubt her sincerity of remorse. And it does not erase the hurt she brought to the victims of her crime. Will she be released? We don’t know. But, she brings to the fore questions like those we saw in the others on the right and left side of Jesus. One denies but wants off the hook, the other acknowledges and then turns to seek forgiveness and eternal life.
As you can see, it is complicated. Life is definitely messier than we would like. From focusing on the other victims with Jesus at the cross, and from looking at the experiences of others in our day, may we come to understand that God’s love is there, always, and is beckoning us to come toward it. The stories of our lives may not be as fraught as others, yet who among us has no need for forgiveness?
So may we too call out, Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom. Amen.
 Amy-Jill Levine: Witness at the Cross: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Friday, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2021), 27.
 Ibid. 27-28.
 Corey Kilgannon, “Remember Pamela Smart? ‘To Die For’ Convict Now Seeks Mercy.” New York Times, March 4, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/04/nyregion/pamela-smart-husband-killing-clemency.html
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