Death seizes everything. Every person we know will die. Everything we treasure will slip away from us, pass through the hands of others and eventually return to dust. Every human act, good or evil, will eventually be lost to memory, and although consequences can linger long after doers and deeds are forgotten, even these finally play themselves out. Nothing can withstand the corrosion of entropy.
‘Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Lk 23:43)
To what people, place, things or ideas do you cling?
Are there divisions in your heart?
How can you emulate Jesus’ unwavering obedience to God?
The salvation Jesus offers is a life that allows something to survive the threat of annihilation. Jesus’ great insight was that death could not capture anything already in God’s hands. His teaching and example show us how to place every aspect of our lives under God’s authority. Only what we freely give back to God will be able to elude the grasp of death.
Total obedience to God does not come naturally to most people, as Luke starkly illustrates in his account of Jesus’ passion and death. Divided hearts and loyalties are everywhere in Luke’s narrative. Only Jesus maintains control of his will until the end, remaining firm in his obedience to God and trust in the Father’s promise.
One clear fault line that Luke emphasizes lies between the people and their leaders. The chief priests and elders insist uniformly on Jesus’ crucifixion, while the people are of two minds. Some side with their leaders (Lk 23:14), while others express their support for Jesus (Lk 23:27). Similarly, Peter symbolizes the psychological divisions of the apostles. Their words show them eager to support Jesus (Lk 22:33, 38), but their actions reveal their faintness of heart (Lk 22:54-62). The two criminals, traditionally called Gestas and Dismas, likewise represent division. The one thief, Gestas, derides Jesus and represents those who rejected his teaching. By contrast, the good thief, Dismas, expresses his faith even as he witnesses Jesus’ death on the cross. These divisions are just a few that illustrate the confusion and conspiracy surrounding Jesus’ death.
By contrast, Jesus remains singlehearted until the end. His constancy makes his self-control apparent. He has conformed his will completely to God’s, and he would rather die than betray this commitment. In Gethsemane, for example, he shows himself the master of all assembled. He neither attacks nor flees from his pursuers, and he forbids his followers to resist them. He even takes the time to heal the severed ear of the high priest’s slave. Likewise, on the cross Jesus never questions his commitment. Instead of the desperate recitation of Ps 22 recorded in Matthew and Mark (“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”), Jesus tells Dismas, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” This one sentence testifies to Jesus’ resolute heart and complete self-mastery even as death had arrived to seize him.
How hard it is to let go of what we love, and how easy it is to despair. All things come undone, and our best reasoning tells us they are gone forever. We must never forget that if we conform our lives to the Gospel, we place into God’s hands the dust to which our lives will return. Like Christ, we too can trust that our creative God will fashion it into something new.