– Beginning of the holiday season. Next week is Advent – We start to prepare for Christmas. Music is already everywhere – we don’t even pay attention. I haven’t grown up with those Christmas songs, so sometimes I pay attention. What is it with Christmas and wondering if we’ve been “Naughty or nice”?If we will be “rewarded or punished”? Is it stuff we just say to children or, under the surface, does it say something about our questioning and anxieties about ourselves and also the way we relate to God?
Do you ever wonder if you’re a good person? Have you ever caught yourself at the end of the day thinking about something you have said or done and questioning whether “you’re a bad person”, and then you start to justify yourself, finding good reasons for a behavior you know is not 100% right, or blaming on circumstances your wrongdoings?
– Wondering if we’re good or bad is an anxiety deeply rooted in human nature that the Reformation / Luther tried to solve: There are no good or bad people, only sinners in need of repentance and salvation – salvation that is made possible only b/c of the grace of God – but has nothing to do with our own merits. Of course, long habits die hard, and we ended up dividing the world between those who are saved (the good people) and those who aren’t saved (the bad people) – which creates a new set of anxieties as to guess in which group you belong…and the circle starts all over again.
– This question of being a good / bad person is unavoidable b/c of course we notice a difference between people, good and bad even if the line is often blurry (nobody being 100%). Our everyday experience, a look at our history, our institutions, our culture, our societies, our relationships tell us that – even if we admit we’re all sinners – there is a difference between people. There are people who are horrible or wonderful, mean or generous, hypocrite or sincere…and this not matter if they claim to be “saved” or not.
I am telling you all of that b/c I think the Gospel we have today
is about this difference between people, about what
makes the real difference between people. We call it the story of
the “good thief” that is unique to Luke. Paradoxical / oxymoron.
A thief should be someone who is bad / do something wrong, and yet
he is pictured as being the good person. Jesus is surrounded by
people who stand by, watching, do nothing, and by people mocking him
/ attacking him, and it’s like there are all a big crowd and then
there is this man who is a robber, maybe a criminal (We
don’t know what he did!) who is also crucified –
and yet who is going to stand out from everybody else
by doing the extraordinary, the “right thing”…. Showing
compassion / rebuking the bullies by saying to the
other thief: “We have been condemned justly…but this man he
had done nothing”.
– Luke’s Gospel: Gospel of the poor yes, but because it’s the Gospel of compassion. Song of Zechariah in Chap 1: God has shown mercy. And this is what it is all about. Compassion. God shows compassion in Jesus by sharing our life and suffering (com-passion), made obvious by the fact that Jesus is condemned and put to death, not on his own, but in the midst of all sinners and mortals / condemned to death we all are / and forgive them. What he does in this Gospel as well, promising paradise to a sinner…a sinner who, according to God’s character, showed compassion.
Good thief is like the final and ideal disciple who “got it” in spite of his shortcomings / even crimes. If you remember the story of the good Samaritan (also unique to Luke), Jesus asks at the end: “Who was a neighbor” and the response is: “The one who showed mercy”. And for Luke this is what make all the difference. Between people, between sinners, between the true God and between false gods: mercy / the ability to show compassion.
– What is compassion? Basic definition: You see people hurting and you feel sorry for them. That’s what happens when you see a documentary about war on TV, or a homeless on the street, read a story about a lost puppy. Now, is this the compassion Luke is talking about? I wonder… Who likes it when people feel sorry for them? Nobody. Nobody wants people to have pity on them – it’s humiliating, it makes you feel helpless, it makes you feel that the one who is sorry for you does it just to feel better about themselves.
So Luke tells us a story to show us what real compassion is about: Real compassion is (1) about asking for justice, (2) taking someone’s defense and (3) reminding them of their own power and beauty – and I think this is what the good thief, the perfect disciple according to Luke’s heart, is doing today.
What is the good thief doing?
– He says to the bully:‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’Compassion is rooted not in feeling sorry for people (b/c they are weak or helpless). Compassion is rooted in acknowledging the unfairness and even the evil of a situation, and how some people can get hurt because of it. Compassion is also a claim for justice that goes beyond what would be advantageous for us. The good thief does not ask justice for himself, but for Jesus who is innocent.
– The way I imagine him asking for justice, I am pretty sure this man talked in much more colorful language than the elegant words the Gospel put into his mouth as he was dying among haters and criminals. (The quotation, this is the idea of what he told them)… and I think it made Jesus smile that the man would take his defense in this way because of course it was probably useless and a bit pathetic to get mad, and yet it was the right thing to do…In the midst of all those people who did nothing or who mocked Jesus – at last, somebody stood up and it must have been very comforting for Jesus, to have somebody who was willing to protect him – and took chances doing so. Right thing and even godly/holy thing to do: The good thief’s sided with Jesus in the same way that Luke shows us how God always sides with the poor.
Compassion is not sentimentalism in Luke’s Gospel, compassion is always at work. It’s our willingness, starting with God’s willingness, to do something. Not about signing a check b/c we feel bad or telling people we are sorry for them. Taking a risk / taking the risk of being hurt ourselves, discredited – b/c we take side with the powerless. We don’t truly know what it is to be loved until the day somebody takes side / take risks for us, as the good thief does for Jesus. God’s compassion is shown in the way that God comes into our darkness (canticle: “those who dwell in darkness”).
If we are to show compassion, we are also called to go to places where people lay in darkness: hospitals, prisons, streets…It can be as simple as the willingness to sit with somebody who has depression or dementia. Not just sending good thoughts and prayers and hoping they will come back to the light. Com-passion: experiencing something of the suffering of the one who suffers / risk getting hurt to relieve them a bit from their pain.
– A third thing about compassion is that it is never condescending, when pity always is. Compassion is sharing in the suffering, yet it is not about doing for somebody what they can do for themselves. You don’t do for somebody what they can do for themselves, but you remind them of who they are. We often quote the “Jesus, remember me when you come to your kingdom” but we often forget that, the good thief, as he reminds Jesus to remember him, reminds Jesus of who Jesus is: The one who is coming to his kingdom / this kingdom Jesus preached about all his life / center of his preoccupations. The good thief reminded Jesus that he saw beauty and also power in him. If we don’t see the beauty and power in those we have compassion on, then it’s just pity. Compassion in Luke is always meant to make people stand on their feet: “Guide our feet into the way of peace”. I am not 100% sure the good thief saw Jesus as the messiah and the savior, but I am 100% sure that he saw the divine in Jesus: kindness, beauty, majesty.
– And this is the irony, right? All those people looking for God and unable to find God, this powerful God who would make a breakthrough to save Jesus / and as they look for this God, they are unable to see the divine. Looking for the king they don’t see the majesty. The majesty only the good thief can see. I think that’s when we understand how compassion saves us. It moves us off center / enables us to escape the circle of wondering if we’re with the good ones or with the bad ones. When we are compassionate, we see goodness not inside of us but we see goodness around us. We are with the ones who are despised because we see their goodness, and that’s the reward / access to Paradise / Reign of Christ even in the midst of hell. Amen.