LEARNING FROM THE TWO CRUCIFIED CRIMINALS OF CALVARY
by NAKKOLACKAL V.L EAPEN
Gaining invaluable insights into life from others’ experience, rather than our own, is generally reckoned a measure of maturity and humility as well. Humility is as fundamental as IQ (Intelligence Quotient) to effective learning. Often we tend to learn from superiors and peers, but seldom from subordinates and juniors, for want of humility which, in other words, is practical sagacity unlike cleverness. During this Holy Great Lent, we need to humble ourselves prayerfully to learn at the feet of the two crucified criminals of Calvary, who are often scornfully dismissed as being among the lowest of the low.
Isaiah prophesies that He, the Sinless One, will be numbered with the transgressors. Around 730 years later, that prophecy comes to pass when the Lord is crucified at Calvary between two criminals – one on the right and the other on the left. We owe it to ourselves NOW to ask and reflect over the question: why do the two criminals bleed and writhe on the cross in agony – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual – all at once? The answer is crystal clear; because they have wantonly abused their God-given freedom of choice. Prostitutes and Tax Collectors have flocked to Jesus the Nazarene for the forgiveness of their sins and for a fresh beginning. The invalid and the crippled have thronged around the Nazarene for healing and restoration. The multitudes have followed Jesus like a shadow wherever He goes for rejuvenating divine inspiration. But these two criminals have foolishly CHOSEN to stay away from their Lord, and become worthless by following their demeaning pursuits. At what is called ‘the moment of truth’, they are called upon to pay the price with their lives for the wrong and stupid choices they have habitually made in life. The FIRST lesson we can draw is this: Choices have their inescapable consequences. When we make right choices like praying daily, respecting and obeying parents and elders habitually, attending church and partaking of Holy Communion every Sunday, strictly observing the Lent, telling the truth always etc., we reap a rich harvest of blessings. On the other hand, when we foolishly make wrong choices, we suffer the Painful Consequences like these two criminals. Life is a precious gift. We have to live it abundantly and victoriously, making right choices all the time.
The chance of a lifetime for salvation and eternal life is available and accessible to both the criminals at close quarters or proximity. The one on the right uses the opportunity; the other loses the opportunity. USE it or LOSE it is the SECOND lesson to be drawn. Whenever an opportunity for spiritual advancement presents itself, we have to seize it and use it; otherwise, we will lose it. For instance, when the Lord’s body and blood are available as food and drink every Sunday and on other Feast Days, we have to avail ourselves of that opportunity for our spiritual nourishment lest we lose it to our own detriment and peril.
The two criminals are almost identical in their background and their lifestyle in rebellion against God. And yet, they react to the presence of the Son of God by their side in the middle, in diametrically opposite fashion. The reason for their divergent responses can be found in Paul’s letter to the Romans. “He has mercy upon whomever He wills; and He hardens the heart of whomever He wills.” God the Father hardens the heart of the criminal on the left. As a result, he is defiant, and he speaks insolently to the Lord: “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us.” Here is lesson No. THREE. God the Father will harden our hearts, just as He has hardened King Pharaoh’s heart, if we do not abide in His will. In fact, there is hardness of heart on the part of both the feuding factions in our church rendering reconciliation, peace and unity impossible. Whenever there is bitterness and bickering in any of our parishes, we can be certain that the parishioners concerned are not abiding in God’s will, and God the Father has hardened their hearts.
The crimes of the criminal on the right are many and varied. Even so, he finds God’s unfathomable mercy. Why? Because, God the Father “has mercy upon whomever He wills.” He is, therefore, able to have an honest self-evaluation and to repent. In the process, he becomes the Lord’s mouth, and rebukes the other criminal for his insolent remarks. Often we pray: ‘Lord, grant us mercy as You have shown mercy on the criminal on Your right.’ We have no moral standing to say that prayer so long as we don’t speak out for the Lord as that criminal does, when we find anything unchristian or uncharitable at our workplace, in our neighborhood and in our social fabric. The FOURTH lesson is that God the Father grants us the inclination to repent, and the will and courage to speak out for Christ when we abide in His will.
Acknowledging his brokenness and helplessness, the criminal on the right cries out: “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” A broken and contrite heart, the Lord does not despise. The Lord’s response is, therefore, spontaneous and compassionate. “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” Incidentally, the criminal on the right is the only person in the New Testament to enter Paradise without baptism, and being escorted by the Lord Himself. The FIFTH lesson we can draw is this: Genuine repentance is the golden key to opening the doors of Paradise.
In recapitulation, the five lessons we can learn from the two criminals are: (i) We are free to make our choices in life, but we cannot escape from the consequences of our choices; (ii) Use it or lose it. If we do not use an opportunity for spiritual improvement that comes our way, we will lose it for ever; (iii) God the Father hardens the hearts of those who do not abide in His will. Hardening of heart is a heaven-sent punishment; (iv) When we abide in God’s will, God the Father blesses us with a repentant frame of mind, and the courage of conviction to speak out for Christ, challenging the status quo; and (v) Genuine repentance leads to Godly grief, and complete reconciliation and restoration.
Before concluding this message, let me quote the words of Nietzsche, the German philosopher. “When a tree grows up to heaven, its roots reach down to hell.” Without the roots reaching the depths of hell, a tree cannot grow to the heights of heaven. This principle is relevant and applicable to our spiritual life. If we want to have a spiritual awakening or rebirth, we need to feel intensely at the very core of our being, our unworthiness, our emptiness and our helplessness. May the self-imposed prayerful discipline of this Lenten Season, empower us to take off and surrender the mask of our self-righteousness at the foot of our Lord’s cross at Calvary, and confess our brokenness, our nothingness and our hopelessness, for being divinely healed and made whole. +TVOO+