Resurrection of Christ from the Sistine Chapel

Nailed between thieves? There’s more to the story

One of the privileges I have is to teach an adult Sunday school class. I’ve long said it’s one of the best jobs (or, as we say in my denomination, callings) there are in the church. It’s always a gratifying challenge to help a group of disparate people explore their faith regardless of where they are on their spiritual journey, and I always learn more in the process than I teach.

In the past, the lesson plans we use haven’t followed the liturgical calendar, but this year they do: Sunday’s lesson is, appropriately, about Easter. So I’ve been spending the last week or so immersing myself in the four Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

And I came across something I never knew before. This verse is a familiar one to many — especially in the King James Version:

And with him they crucify two thieves; the one on his right hand, and the other on his left.

The image with Jesus on a cross that stands between the two other crosses has become iconic across the spectrum of Christianity. And, partly because of the influence of the KJV (the verse is Mark 15:27), we often think of Jesus being numbered among thieves. What I learned just the other day is that the Greek word (λῃστής or lēstēs) often translated as thieves was the word used by Romans to refer to insurrectionists, revolutionaries and rebels. By using this word, Mark makes clear even beyond the context that the Romans didn’t view Jesus as a mere criminal: He was a threat to the empire.

A threat? Why would a rabbi little known far from his home town of Nazareth be so threatening that he had to be executed? Perhaps that is the question we should ponder this Easter weekend: Jesus was threatening even though he wasn’t a political force, and his closest followers were a ragtag group of women (a powerless group in those days) and a bunch of fishermen.

But perhaps the Romans were insightful enough to see Jesus was posing a different kind of threat than what is traditionally thought of as one. They had to know at some level that it wasn’t possible to live the kind of life that Jesus talked about and to continue to oppress others. And among those who Jesus had befriended were the despised tax collectors, those who were betraying their own people by doing Rome’s bidding. Could it be that the threat the Romans saw wasn’t political in the normal sense of the word, but that his teachings had the potential to weaken the grip of the oppressors and to give dignity to the oppressed?

The fact is that the life Jesus spoke about was revolutionary in the fullest sense of the word. To put it simply, oppression exists only become some people view others as of less value than themselves, and how is it possible to live a Christ-following life and think of or treat others that way? One of Jesus’ earliest influential followers, Paul of Tarsus, taught that in Christ there is no Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female — we are all equal.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see such teaching and thinking as a threat to the established order.

And that’s as true today as it was in A.D. 30.

Unfortunately, over the centuries those of us who claim to follow Christ have lost sight of his revolutionary perspective. His teachings have been too often used to oppress — to claim, for example, that slaves were inferior to their masters. In modern times, it is possible to name almost any group and find some of Jesus’ supposed followers treating them as “less than” — immigrants, gays, Muslims, those of the other political party, women and the homeless are just a few that come to mind in 2019.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Jesus died a painful death, but the Resurrection tells us that wasn’t the end. Death couldn’t prevent the spread of His good news that there’s an alternative to our base human tendencies — that we can love and even embrace all people, regardless of ideology, gender, religion, economic status, race, nationality and whatever label we can pin on them.

To be crucified with Christ, as Paul put it his letter to the Galatians, is to number ourselves among those rebel against things the way they are. To live the way Jesus taught would truly be revolutionary.

 

Sistine Chapel photo of Michelangelo painting by Larry Koester, CC BY 2.0.

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