Summary: Anyone could have hung as a thief next to Jesus - including one of us.
The Passion Week story is filled with characters that we could, and perhaps should, spend time examining because they illustrate the human race of every historical age.
The status quo is present in the persons of the Pharisees and Sanhedrin. Every age of history has such people - religious or not. They are the ones with the power, influence, and wealth. They have gotten to where they are either by heritage or honest hard work or dishonesty and illegal means. And they sometimes are not about to let others have a share of what they have. They see Jesus as a threat that is to be eliminated.
There are those at the opposite ends from the status quo in every age. They are the disenfranchised. They are the revolutionaries. They seek to change the system. They are present in some of the disciples like Judas or in people who stand in the shadows of the towns and villages through which Jesus walked and cared while on His way to Jerusalem. They are out to change the system. They see Jesus as their hope for big changes of a revolutionary nature.
Then there are those who are there because they are simply in that place and time at that place and time. They are present in the Roman Soldiers who beat Jesus and nail Him to the cross. They are there because that is where their orders sent them. It is their tour of duty. Jesus is just another person who is being executed. They could care less who is being executed. They are carrying out orders.
Then there are the two thieves who will hang next to Jesus. Where do we place them? Where do we see them in relation to the human race? How do they view Jesus?
We could argue that they are a part of revolutionaries who seek major change by trying to overthrow the Roman government. They may even argue that they were framed for their offenses because of their political connections.
Or we could argue that they are simply there because of the choices they made and were caught and are facing the punishment. Haley notes, “crucifixion was Rome’s punishment for slaves, foreigners, and criminals who were not Roman citizens.” And Leon-Dufour concurs with Haley when he says; “It was applied to slaves and non-citizens (in the case of a revolt, or theft or murder), sometimes to citizens (in the case of high treason).” But no matter what the reason, they were found guilty and were sentenced to death.
Who were these two men? We know little about them but their responses to Jesus while hanging alongside Him says volumes about who they are and about us because the two thieves represent the two basic responses to Christ that are common to all of human history.
In our text for this morning, Luke 23:32-43, we notice the following about these two men:
1. They hung alongside Jesus.
2. They both observed the intense mockery and ridicule of Jesus.
3. They both heard him called in jest, “The King of the Jews.”
4. One thief joins in the horrific and merciless verbal abuse of Jesus challenging Him to save Himself and them from death.
5. The other thief rebukes his cohort by reminding him that they are deserving of their punishment while Jesus is not deserving of His.
Have you ever wondered what these thieves experienced during the last week of their lives? We have a record of how Jesus spent His last week before His death. But, we don’t really know how these two spent the last week of their lives.
They could have spent the last week of their lives trying to appeal their case before Roman authorities. They could have had the best defense team possible to try and stay their executions.
They could have launched a large media campaign trying to portray themselves as innocent bystanders who were at the wrong place at the wrong time. They could have portrayed themselves as good kids gone bad. Misguided misfits who need to pay for what they did, but who also need to get some help and positive attention.
Or maybe they spent their last week stealing and barely missed getting caught until they did get caught and arrested and tried. Maybe they kept saying, “Just one more time and then we quit stealing.” But, they could not quit and their greed finally got them.
Maybe they were in the crowd on Palm Sunday looking for opportunities to steal while the crowds gathered to welcome Jesus. Maybe they were from the countryside and were glad for the large crowds gathering for the Passover celebration because they would increasing their wealth. Or maybe they were so poor and in such dire need that thievery was their only means of making a living.