April 18, 2014

Did Only One Thief Insult Christ on the Cross?

By John Sanidopoulos

The Synoptic Gospels contain an interesting detail often overlooked in regard to the two thieves, or bandits, crucified with Christ. We read the following:

A) Matthew 27:44

"...καὶ οἱ λῃσταὶ οἱ συσταυρωθέντες αὐτῷ ὠνείδιζον αὐτόν"

"...and the bandits who were crucified with him insulted him."

B) Mark 15:32

"...καὶ οἱ συνεσταυρωμένοι αὐτῷ ὠνείδιζον αὐτόν."

"...and those crucified with him insulted him."

C) Luke 23:39

"Εἷς δὲ τῶν κρεμασθέντων κακούργων ἐβλασφήμει αὐτὸν..."

"And the criminal who hung there blasphemed him..."

The Gospel of Luke is the only Gospel that talks about the repentant thief, but Matthew and Mark say that they both insulted the Lord. Is there a contradiction?

Though there is a difference in emphasis, there is not a contradiction. In fact, Origen, Cyril of Alexandria, Chrysostom, Theophylact and Euthymios Zygabenos all explain that at first both thieves joined the mob and insulted Jesus on the Cross, but then at some point one of them had a change of heart. Perhaps he was persuaded by the realization of his impending death and the utter distaste of heaping blasphemies at the moment of death, perhaps it was the Divine patience and meekness of the Savior and those last words of His as death came near, or perhaps he was in awe of the gathering darkness, so he repented, confessed, and was forgiven, becoming the first to enter Paradise.

Chrysostom says: "For those who before paid Him attention, had deserted Him, but His enemies and foes, having got Him in the midst of themselves on the Cross, insulted, reviled, mocked, derided, scoffed at Him, Jews and soldiers from below, and from above thieves on either side: for indeed the thieves insulted, and both of them reviled Him. How then does Luke say one of them "blasphemed"? Both things were done, for at first both reviled Him, but afterwards one did so no more. So that you may not think that this was done by any agreement, or that the thief was not a thief, by his insolence he shows you, that up on the Cross he was a thief and an enemy, and at once was changed."

Thus, by reading Matthew and Luke it is confirmed for us that the thief was indeed an enemy of the Lord when he was crucified, but at some point and for some reason had a change of heart, as Luke emphasizes. This shows not only the power of repentance, but also the mercy of the Lord towards one who changes their heart, even at the very moment of death. If a bandit who committed such great evils and criminal acts in his life can seize the Kingdom of Heaven with one phrase at the moment of death, then despair is not an option for one who hopes in the Lord with humility and submission to His Divine sovereignty.