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  • Terry Glaspey

Lenten Journey with Art #5

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

Titian, Christ On the Cross and the Good Thief, c. 1566

The KJV translation tells us that Christ was crucified between two “thieves,” though it is highly unlikely that these were common criminals, for crucifixion was a form of punishment that the Romans reserved for the most dangerously seditious individuals, those seen as a serious threat to the Empire. It was a punishment that was highly public, sending a message of warning to any on-looker who might contemplate the sort of actions that led to this tortuous end. And it was meant to be not only a slow and cruel torture, but also a dehumanizing fate, the ultimate in shame and disgrace.  This He endured on our behalf: “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 12:2). The great Venetian master, Titian, has painted Jesus and the “good thief” hanging against a background of roiling black clouds. The “good thief” seems rather animated for one who is suffering such a fate, though notably he seems free of the nails that pin Christ to the wooden cross. Christ seems more inwardly focused, but not so much that He cannot speak words of hope to His fellow sufferer. The “thief” who is not pictured has railed against Jesus, asserting that He should save Himself if He is really the promised One. His tone is mocking. Is his own pain not severe enough that he cannot refrain from attacking a fellow sufferer? But the good thief indignantly answers with a confession of his own guilt and a proclamation of Jesus’ innocence.  Then, he says to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” to which Jesus answers, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:39-43). One of the mysteries of this passage of Scripture is how the repentant criminal knew so clearly who it was that was hanging there on the cross next to his. Perhaps he took seriously the sign that was affixed just above Jesus’ head that proclaimed Him to be a king. Or maybe the very presence of Jesus made him fully aware of his own sin in juxtaposition to the innocence that radiated from Christ. Or possibly this was a moment when a spiritual awakening occurred within him, and he sensed that his eternal fate lay in throwing his lot in with the pierced Savior. There has been much speculation down through the centuries about what Jesus was promising to this man, and what the nature of the “paradise” might be. Rather than enter into these theological speculations, perhaps we can simply focus on what is clearly promised by our Lord. It can be found in these five words: “you will be with me.” We may or may not be able to draw out a fully articulated and inarguable picture of the afterlife from the pages of the Bible, but the one thing we can be sure of is that He promises that we will be with Him.

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