“We recognize the two thieves who are crucified next to Christ. They are us. What each of us has to answer is which one do I choose to be. The bitter thief on the left or the repentant thief on the right?”
In asking these questions during our Friday Lenten service, Father Conrad was challenging each member of our Byzantine Catholic community to acknowledge our sinfulness and our need for Christ. An experienced pastor with decades of ordained ministry, Fr Conrad understands the fine line between acknowledgement of human sinfulness before God and pharisaical condemnation.
“In reality,” Fr Conrad would add, “most of us are both. There are times when we turn to God in honesty and humility and ask His forgiveness. At other times, whether through pride or anger or some other sin, we turn away from Him because He asks better of us.”
In reading Pope Francis’s 2018 Lenten message, the Holy Father recognizes this spiritual struggle between the repentant thief and the bitter thief within our human heart. “More than anything else, what destroys charity is greed for money, ‘the root of all evil’ (1 Tim 6:10). The rejection of God and his peace soon follows; we prefer our own desolation rather than the comfort found in his word and the sacraments. All this leads to violence against anyone we think is a threat to our own ‘certainties’: the unborn child, the elderly and infirm, the migrant, the alien among us, or our neighbour who does not live up to our expectations,” Pope Francis states.
In the Gospel according to St Luke, the bitter thief meets Pope Francis’ description of one who has abandoned Christ and the sacraments for one’s own selfish and material comfort. “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” he states mockingly (Luke 23:39-40). Facing death as a consequence for crimes of selfishness committed against others, the unrepentant thief allows the bitterness of his worldly end to consume him completely.
In contrast, the repentant thief turns to Christ. “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power,” he states with humility and sincerity (Luke 23:42). He knows that he is a sinner in need of redemption. And thus his focus as he faces eternity turns to Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is for this reason that we too repeat his prayer prior to receiving the Eucharist at Divine Liturgy (or Holy Mass for my Latin brothers and sisters).
This example of the repentant thief also fits the advice offered by Pope Francis in his Lenten message this year: “By devoting more time to prayer, we enable our hearts to root out our secret lies and forms of self-deception, and then to find the consolation God offers.”
This consolation is expressed by Our Lord to the repentant thief as follows: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) As we approach Holy Week this year, let each of us choose to be the repentant thief. That is, along with Pope Francis, let us choose to spend more time in prayer, confronting our sins, and seeking spiritual comfort in God’s love and forgiveness.