Summary: This sermon examines the attitude and words of the two criminals from the cross.
March 28, 2012 The Shadow of Gestas and the Light of Dismas
Luke 23:39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
Luke 23:40-43 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
“Gestas” and “Dismas” are actually the apocryphal names given to the thieves, first appearing in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus from 4th Century A.D. Gestas was the mocking thief and Dismas was said to be the repentant thief.
What more do we know about them? An old legend from an apocryphal Arabic infancy gospel says that when the Holy Family was running to Egypt, they were set upon by a band of thieves including Dismas and Gestas. Dismas realized there was something different about the family and offered the other thieves 40 groats – something like oatmeal – to leave the family alone. As a result, Jesus was said to have predicted Dismas’ eventual salvation and Gestas’ eventual damnation on the cross thirty years later. Interesting folklore; nothing more.
When you see artistry you will notice that Jesus’ head and feet are always looking and leaning to the right, where Dismas was said to have been, while He is facing away from Gestas to his left. The symbolism is interesting; nothing more.
We don’t know what their names were for sure, and beyond curiosity’s sake it doesn’t really matter. We don’t know which way Jesus’ body and head were shifted; it doesn’t matter. What are they both doing there? That is a good place to start. We do know that.
I. Both are equally guilty
Both are hanging and dying as “robbers.” (Matthew 27:38) The actual word is λῃσταί, and it is also used of Barabbas in John 18:40. The word is defined as a plunderer and also as an insurrectionist in the Greek-English Lexicon specifically because of the reference to Barabbas as a robber. It might be considered as robbery somehow in connection with insurrection, perhaps like when a riot is started some people take advantage of the chaos and rob people in the process.
A robber is different from a thief or a swindler, at least as I remember it from catechism. A robber takes something by force, whereas a thief tries to take it secretly and without force. We might think of the parable of the Good Samaritan, where the man was beaten up and robbed of his goods.
Both of these men were arrested for being accused of or caught taking something from someone by force, just as Barabbas was well-renowned for. Who knows? Maybe they were all a part of the same rebellion? Perhaps Dismas and Gestas had a long history of robbing people together and maybe they were both caught together for sharing the same loot. Either way, they were both convicted and dying as guilty robbers. Hanging and bloodied from the cross, the law caught up with them and they were suffering and dying for it.
The law catches up with all of us and nails all of us down sooner or later. Our beds may not be made up of wood and our hands and feet may not be stuck with nails; but nonetheless; someway and somehow the law still catches up with us all and convicts us of some crime. The law of bad eating clogs the arteries and sticks some with heart attacks and clogged arteries. The law against worrying infects others with ulcers. The law of greed locks some up in their own homes; unwilling to help others when they call; dying in their homes only consumed with the self. The law of drug abuse robs people of their finances and their families; destitute and alone. Even when you eat right and live right, the general law of sin still puts us all on the death bed; making us suffer and die. All of this happens because our ancestors stole what was not theirs to take when they ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. So now we are all under the curse of the law; cursed as sinners to die. Exercise as you might and try to live as good as a life as you will, the law will still catch you and put you to death.
The law had caught up with Gestas and Dismas. Both were in the same situation for the same reason. They were both condemned robbers. So they both naturally responded the same at first. Matthew 27:44 says that they both heaped insults on Jesus. Think about the situation. They were in complete misery. Life couldn’t get much worse. Come to find out they had between them a Jewish guy who thought He was God!?! Your flesh would say, “This guy obviously isn’t any type of Messiah. If He really thinks He’s God, I might as well bring Him back down to earth.” So that’s what both of them did; for a time. The difference is that Gestas never let up.