A tale of two thieves
Faith & Inspiration
by Andrée Seu Peterson
Posted on Friday, April 3, 2015, at 11:52 am
Curmudgeons in the Bible contradictions industry may relish the seemingly at-odds recounting of the tale of two thieves executed on either side of Jesus. Here is the terse summation from the evangelist Matthew’s point of view:
“And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.” (Matthew 27:44, ESV).
Here is Luke’s version that seems at variance:
“One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’” (Luke 23:39-43, ESV).
But the contradiction “problem” is easily dispensed with: One of the thieves was converted right there on the cross. He arrived at Golgotha an unsaved man and a reviler, and he was for a few minutes or hours still a reviler while hanging on the wooden torture beam. But at some point the man had a change of mind. (This is the definition of the Greek word metanoia that is translated “repentance”: Meta is the preposition “after” or “with,” and the verb noeo means “to perceive, to think.”)
It is not far-fetched to think that the one thief changed his mind so suddenly after having reviled Jesus right along with the other criminal. In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes his own inexplicable conversion in similar terms: He took a ride to the zoo in the sidecar of his brother Warren’s motorcycle, and wrote, “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and when we reached the zoo I did.”
What happened? Could it be that the thief was amazed at Jesus’ unnatural grace under pressure as He prayed to God, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”? Could it be that he was struck when Jesus called the divine one “Father”? Could the turning moment have been when the rabble standing below voiced their grudging admission that Jesus had done miracles and “saved others”? Did the man happen to see the sign nailed to Jesus’ cross that said, “This is the King of the Jews,” and did he suddenly perceive it through his agony as truth and not mockery?
God is an iconoclast of human formulas. He saves men as he pleases—sometimes through a cogent gospel presentation and sometimes through a truncated one. How eager God is to save us, that a man should have so little information and yet God should be well pleased to bring him in.
Andrée Seu Peterson
Andrée is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine and the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.