More years ago then I care to mention, I remember picking up my youngest daughter from preschool on a beautiful fall day and I arrived a few minutes early, during their end-of-the-day outdoor recess, so I decided to just sit in the sun and watch her and her friends play for a bit. In the 10 minutes that I observed this group of 4-year-olds, it became quite clear that one of the little girls was calling all the shots.
“Ashley, please bring that ball over here… William, begin to collect those big stones over there so we can set up the goal posts… Eva, your job is to…” and so on. In that little corner of the playground, this little girls was establishing her kingdom. Creating a place where she was sovereign.
Author Dallas Willard writes that “we all have our little kingdoms in life: areas of life where my will and my desires determine what happens and what does not happen. And indeed, in our homes, at our places of work, our ministries, we all have little patches where we make a kingdom for ourselves, where we have influence and try to arrange things so that what we say, what we think, and what we believe determines the shape of life.” (Scott Hoezee)
In the Gospel of Luke 23:35-43 we hear of Jesus hanging on the cross with a sign above his head that reads “The King of the Jews.” No doubt a jeer by the Romans, but for believers this is our central mystery; our defining moment.
What are we to think about the nature of God’s kingdom,, God’s will when we are faced with the picture of our “King” Jesus, dying a brutal death on the cross?
The two thieves, who tradition holds were crucified next to Jesus, give witness to two of many possible responses we can have to intense pain and suffering. We can (and in our humanness often do) respond like the first criminal, often dubbed the “bad” thief because he indignantly cries out to Jesus “Why are you allowing this? Why don’t you end all this suffering? Maybe instead of the “bad” thief his nickname should be “the thief like us” – because who among us hasn’t shaken our fists at the heavens with genuine confusion and anger and said “Why?? Why God? “This suffering makes no sense to me!! Why are there hurricanes, cancer, children dying of hunger? Why do I feel nothing but emptiness in my prayer life? Why is my marriage failing? If you are really an all-powerful and merciful God, and we are your children, how can you not ACT to end this?
These are not questions that can be answered rationally with heady justifications such as ‘suffering is a result of our free will’ or ‘it’s a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience.’ Rather, they are cries of passion that scream “I cry to you God, but you do not answer! I stand before you and yet you are silent!” The answer we seek is not an explanation, but RELIEF! When we cry “Why?” what we are really saying is “Make it stop!” But, yet suffering continues (paraphrase from Fr. Ron Rolheiser).
Like the “bad” thief, we just can’t understand. This is NOT how things are supposed to work. We privately think to ourselves ‘my kingdom would never be run so shabbily.’ It might be helpful for us to remember that Jesus also did his fair share of fist-shaking prayer in the garden too.
But then, like balm to our soul, we read Psalm 34 – “God’s ears are turned toward our cry for help…the Lord hears and rescues us from our troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” In other translations it reads “God hears the cry of the poor” – as we sing even to this day.
So, in truth the “bad” thief’s outrage is really a very ancient and honest prayer; one that I suspect we are all very familiar with. God makes no distinction between “Good and Bad” – those are our narrow categories that only serve to shame our own honest, human tendencies.
Perhaps the words “Gods ways are not our ways” from the book of Isaiah are what we are bid to ponder and embrace as we seek the truth to be found in the exchange among these three, suffering men being crucified.
Personally, I’m embarrassed and frustrated about HOW OFTEN I have to be reminded that God’s ways are not my ways. Damn, it’s hard to find God in conflict and suffering. Nonetheless, Jesus’ life and death tell us plain and clear that God’s ways are NOT our ways. God’s answer to suffering is not to escape it, skirt it, deny it or blame it on human sinfulness, like we are prone to do. Rather, God’s answer to suffering is to embrace it…
Fr. Richard Rohr says “The primary story line of history has always been one of “redemptive violence”; that the intimidation and killing of others would supposedly save and protect us…” This is the story line that the so called ‘bad’ thief stills buys into – he demands that Jesus be what all our earthly images of a King say he should be: Powerful, respected, in control. Our culture still buys this story line as demonstrated in our continued tendency towards war and domination of others.
Jesus introduced and lived a new story line of “redemptive suffering”; We are saved by the cross of Jesus in that even in the midst of horrific suffering, Jesus never stopped loving us…he never broke…he never became bitter….he never cursed us….
Rather, he prayed for us! He prayed “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they do…they just don’t know!” Even in his deepest suffering, he never stopped being a loving compassionate person. What is Jesus teaching us about God, even here at the end of his earthly life? How does his brutal death land in us?
We believe that in the life and death of Jesus Christ, God is communicating God’s very self to us. That is what grace is – God’s self-communication of which Jesus is the ultimate apex, the climax, the culmination of all that God wishes us to know about our divine creator. And what has he given us to ponder? A demonstration of the power of suffering love; the only power able to bring about real and lasting change.
The mystery of God’s life with us is that the cross of Jesus, the very moment of catastrophe, is, in truth, the moment of liberation” (Weigel)….it is the turning point of history…..
Jesus conquered death and birthed the kingdom of God not by retaliation, and not by giving up or giving in to the violence he suffered. He did not let this unjust violence change his course or his person or his character. He didn’t seek it out (and it needs to be noted here that God would never will us to stay in abusive situations or endure repeated violence) and God did not will Jesus to suffer but simply to love, but as often happens to those who live lives of compassion, he suffered…and though never “good” suffering CAN have value if we don’t become bitter.
On our better days, we know this and we can respond like the ‘good’ thief and let go of our own kingdoms and own convictions about how things should be and turn to Jesus and make the one request he wants to hear; ”Jesus, remember me in YOUR kingdom, don’t forget me” – a request for the great grace of surrender that aligns our human openness to God’s initiative that we might be able to let go and trust. Trust that God is in this (somewhere). Trust that our lives and even our suffering have meaning and that God will not ever leave us alone in our pain.
A closing image..
Joyce Rupp points out that there is no resurrection without the Holy Saturday of the tomb, when the darkness smells of death and the tomb shows no evidence of life. This ‘place in between’ is filled with agonizing silence and painful hollowness. We often doubt God’s presence in it.
She says its like “when we plant a seed in the soil, or when a caterpillar spins a cocoon there’s no way of telling what’s going on inside in the darkness or exactly how long the wait is going to be. We can’t dig up the seed to check if there’s growth or slip open the cocoon and peer inside because this would cause death…” (34, Pieces of Light).
Jesus encourages us and leaves us his example on how to lean into God and trust that God is at work (birthing the kingdom even) during our times of darkness and suffering….