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The Three Crosses: The Bad Thief, or the Cross Rejected

  • FR. LEONARD PUECH, O.F.M.

Looking at the three crosses of Calvary, we shall learn what our attitude to our own cross can be, and what will result if we (1) reject it as did the bad thief, (2) accept it as the good thief did, or (3) embrace it with Jesus.

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Three crosses stand on top of Calvary, the tragic hill, and remind us of a detail of the great drama related by St. John: "There they crucified him and with him two others, one on each side and Jesus in the Middle" (Jo. 19, 18).

When the four authors of the gospels noted this circumstance of the Passion, it was not just to bring out a picturesque detail, but rather to point out an important circumstance of the sufferings of Jesus, the ignominy and shame of his death and the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy: "He was counted among the wicked" (Is. 53, 12).

These three crosses, if we look at them with attention, will teach us a still more important lesson. The two thieves crucified with Jesus represent all sinful mankind, likewise condemned to death. Are we not all of us thieves, and great ones? Did we not rob God of his glory and of the honor we owed him? Are we not, all of us, condemned to the cross with Jesus? "If anyone wises to come after me, let himtake up his cross every day" (Lk. 9,23).

Looking at the three crosses of Calvary, we shall learn what our attitude to our own cross can be, and what will result if we (1) reject it as did the bad thief, (2) accept it as the good thief did, or (3) embrace it with Jesus.


The bad thief, or the cross rejected

His suffering

No doubt he suffers both in his body and in his soul. He bears the same torture as his companion; his feet and his hands are nailed to the cross, as were the feet and hands of Jesus. He suffers the same slow suffocation, the same burning thirst, the same wracking of the muscles strained and convulsed.

He suffers in his flesh; he suffers also in his soul. He is on this cross very much against his will, and longs to get off: "If you are the Christ, save yourself and us with you" (Lk. 23, 39). He feels that everything is failing him; he revels against his fate; in his despair blasphemes God and curses everybody around him.

Yes, he suffers. No rest for his body; no peace for his heart. His lot is a sad one indeed.


His dispositions

Yet much more sad are the dispositions of his soul.

He suffers without humility. His crimes — he knows them well; yet he does not consider himself more guilty and more worthy of punishment than anybody else. More unlucky, that's all!

With death so close, he does not think of asking God's forgiveness, when about to face him — of humbling himself before him. His companion is afraid of such hardness of heart — "You do not even fear God" (Lk. 23,40). To taunt men, well maybe; but to taunt God when about to die!

He suffers without faith. He sees the patience and the meekness of Jesus, but it is not enough to open his eyes. He throws at Jesus the challenge, "If you are the Christ, save yourself and us with you" (Lk. 23,29). As if to say, "If you really were the Messiah, you would work a miracle; you would save yourself and you would save us."

This is the call of those who don't believe and demand a miracle in order to believe; a miracle of their own choosing. This was the call of the soldiers, who were mocking Jesus, while standing on guard: "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself" (Lk. 23, 27). It was the call of the chiefs of the people, who taunted their victim: "If he is the king of Israel, let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him" (Mr. 27,42). It was the call of the devil: "If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread" (Mr. 4, 23).

How could he be the Messiah, the Son of God, and yet so powerless to save himself? The Messiah? Nonsense. Let him first get himself out of this, before claiming to save others. The bad thief suffers, but without faith, and turns a deaf ear to the admonition of his companion, as the unbeliever remains deaf to al admonitions. He trusts only his own judgment.

He suffers without hope. Heaven he does not think about, does not desire. The only thing he is interested in and would like to have IS CONTINUED LIFE — TO ESCAPE FROM DEATH ("save yourself and us with you"). It is the only thing he asks for — to escape from suffering, from death, to enjoy life. He does not know and he does not desire any goods, beyond those of the present life.

Alas! He is losing them all at the same time. Death is about to take away everything from him, and it is not this would-be Messiah, who can give them back to him — he who cannot even save himself. There is no more hope.

He suffers without hope.

Finally, he suffers without charity, without love of God or neighbor. Not only does he refuse to accept his punishment humbly, as being God's will, but he tries to bring Jesus to reject the will of his Father — as the devil had tried at the temptation, as he was trying yet through the mouths of the chief priests and of the soldiers: "If he is the king of Israel, let him come down from the cross." He also repeats the same diabolical suggestion: "If you are the Messiah, save yourself."

Nor does he have any respect for the man dying at his side, and, with the crowd and the soldiers, he mocks him: "He saved others and cannot save himself" (Mr. 27, 42). Dying, he insults a dying man. He suffers without charity.


The results

What is the result of all these sufferings and of these dispositions? He gets nothing from them and loses everything.

Through his rebellion the bad thief did not gain anything. His punishment was not taken away: he continued suffering and he died like his companion. His sufferings were not diminished. On the contrary, his rebellion and despair made them all the more cruel.

He gained nothing, and lost everything. He hardened himself completely in his sin, his pride, his rebellion and hatred. He died desperate and probably was damned as he died at Jesus's side.

It is awful to think that Our Lord did not address a word to him. Jesus who, until the last minute, persisted in calling back sinners to salvation, who tried to move the heart of Judas in his very act of treason ("Friend, for what did you come?" — Mt. 26, 50); Jesus, who on the cross continued to ask forgiveness for those who killed him; Jesus has nothing to say to him.

It is the silence that he preserved in the presence of Herod, the same silence he maintained before his accusers. Jesus remains silent, because to speak would be useless. Admirable silence, for it is a mercy — since speaking would only have increased the guilt. Awful silence, for it is a condemnation, since it proclaims the total hardening and the final impenitence of the bad thief.

A sad lot indeed for this bandit! He suffers and dies rejecting his cross. He loses his life and loses his soul. And he is damned.

See: The Three Crosses: The Good Thief or the Cross Accepted

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Acknowledgement

Fr. Leonard M. Puech, O.F.M. "The Three Crosses: The Bad Thief, or the Cross Rejected." In Spiritual Guidance (Vancouver, B.C.: Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice and Liberty, 1983), 249-252.

Republished with permission of the Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice and Liberty.

The Author

The late Fr. Leonard M. Puech wrote a popular column for the B.C. Catholic from 1976 to 1982. Those columns were compiled and published by the Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice, and Liberty as the book Spiritual Guidance in 1983. The VFAJL is interested in reprinting Spiritual Guidance. Anyone who would like to contribute to this worthy cause please write: Dr. Margherita Oberti, 1170 Eyremount Drive, West Vancouver, B.C. V7S 2C5.

Copyright © 1983 Fr. Leonard Puech, O.F.M.
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