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MESSAGE OF THE MONTH
The Gospel on God among the Criminals
By St. Nikolai Velimirovic, from ďHOMILIES: A Commentary on the Gospel Readings for Great Feasts and Sundays throughout the Year,Ē vol. one, Great Feasts, Lent, Eastertide and Pentecost (1996), pp. 195-198.
Christ on Golgotha! The Saviour on the Cross! The Righteous One in torment! The Lover of Mankind killed by men! Let him who has a conscience be ashamed! Let him who has a heart weep! Let him who has a mind understand!
With what can we compare this eventómysterious as infinity, hard as earth and terrible as hell? Of millions of happenings every day throughout the universe, that our eyes can see and our ears hear, with what event can we compare this unmentionable act of wickedness on Golgotha? With a lamb among ravening wolves? Or an innocent child in the jaws of a snake-like king? Or a mother surrounded by insane sons and daughters? Or with a skillful manís fall into a machine that he had himself assembled, to be cut to pieces by the machineís wheels? With Abel, whom his brother killed? But then the greater sinner killed the lesser, while here wicked men fall on the sinless. With Joseph, whose brothers sold him in Egypt? But that was a sin against their brother, not against a benefactor, while here the sin is against the Benefactor. With righteous Job, whose flesh Satan turned to corruption and a stench, a meal for worms? But then Satan rose up against Godís creature, while here the creature rises up against the Creator. With wondrous David, against whom his son Absalom raised a rebellion? But that was a small punishment for Davidís great sin, while here the innocent One, the Most Righteous, suffers so terribly!
The merciful Samaritan, who had saved humanity from injury by thieves, has Himself fallen into the hands of thieves. Seven sorts of criminal surround Him. The first is represented by Satan, the second by the elders and leaders of the Jewish people, the third by Judas, the fourth by Pilate, the fifth by Barabbas, the sixth by the unrepentant thief on the cross and the seventh by the penitent thief. Let us pause a moment, and look at this company of criminals in the midst of whom the Son of God hangs crucified, bloody and wounded.
In the first place
comes Satan, the one who wishes the greatest harm to the human race. He is the
father of lies, and the criminal of criminals. The temptations by which he
tempts the human race, to bring it to ruin, are twofold: he tempts by ease and
by suffering. At the beginning, he tempted the Lord on the Mount of Temptation
with ease, power and riches; now, at the end, he tempts Him through suffering.
When he had been overcome and shamed at the first temptation, he left the Lord
and fled from Him. He did not, though, abandon Him completely, but only for a
time. As the Gospel records: he departed from Him for a season. (Lk 4:13). Now
this season has passed, and he shows himself again. This time he does not need
to appear openly and visibly; this time he works through men, through the sons
of darkness, who have been blinded by Christís great light, and in their
blindness have put themselves into Satanís hands and serve him as a weapon
against Christ the Lord. But he is there, close to every tongue that blasphemes
against Christ, to every mouth that spits upon Christís most pure face, to every
hand that flogs Him and pierces Him with the crown of thorns, to every heart
that burns with the fire of jealousy and hatred for Him.
The second criminal, or group of criminals, is the leaders and elders of the Jewish people: political, religious and intellectual. These are the Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees and priests, with King Herod at their head. Jealousy and fear have turned them to crime against the Lordójealousy of One mightier, wiser and better than themselves; and fear for their position, authority, honor and wealth if the people support Christ. Perceive ye how ye prevail nothing? Behold, the world is gone after Him (Jn 12:19), was the cry from their weakness, envy and fear. What is the worst of their banditry against the Lord? It is their having, with no legal trial or condemnation, arrested and killed Him. It is written in the Gospel: Then assembled together the chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders of the people, unto the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and consulted that they might take Jesus by subtlety, and kill Him. (Mt 26:3-4). They do not, then, take counsel together how to accuse Him and bring Him to court, but to take Jesus ... and kill Him and this by subtlety! When law-abiding Nicodemos suggests that the Lord first be given a hearing by the court, to know what He doeth, they reject this suggestion with displeasure and mocking smiles. (Jn 7:50-52).
The third criminal is Judas, the seeming, shameful apostle. Satan took part in the shedding of Christís blood out of hatred for God and man; the elders and leaders of the people took part out of envy and fear; Judas joins the company of Satan and the elders of the people out of covetousness. His crime consists in betraying his Teacher and Benefactor for thirty pieces of silver. He himself later acknowledges his crime to these same elders, who had hired him for the act of betrayal: I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood ... and he cast down the pieces of silver in the Temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself. (Mt 27:4-5). And his horrible death itself testifies against him, for it is written of him: and falling head-long, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out. (Acts 1:18).
The fourth criminal is Pilate, Caesarís representative in Jerusalem, and in some mysterious way the representative of the pagan, godless world in the condemnation of the Son of God. He scorns the Jews, as the Jews do him. At first, he has no intention of becoming involved in Christís condemnation: Take ye Him, and judge Him according to your law (Jn 18:31) are his words to Christís accusers. Later, he is on Christís side and, after a form of trial, tells the Jews: I find in Him no fault at all (Jn 18:38). Finally, cowed by threats: If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesarís friend (Jn 19:12), Pilate gives sentence that it should be as they required (Lk 23:24), and orders that Christ be flogged and crucified. Pilateís crime consists in his being able to protect the Righteous One, and in not doing so. He himself says to the Lord: Knowest Thou not that I have power to crucify Thee, and have power to release Thee? (Jn 19:10) With this statement, Pilate takes upon himself for all time the responsibility for Christís death. What drives Pilate to commit this crime, and what places him in the company of the other criminals? Weak-mindedness and fear; weak-mindedness in defense of justice and fear for his position and Caesarís mercy.
The fifth criminal is Barabbas. He is in prison at this time for sedition ... and for murder. (Lk 23:19). For such crimes, he is, under both Jewish and Roman law, deserving of death. He has not personally or consciously sinned against Christ in any way. It is those who put him above Christ who sin. Pilate has thought to use Barabbas as a means of saving Christ from death; the Jews, however, use the innocent Christ to save Barabbas, Pilate having placed before the Jews the free choice: Christ, or Barabbasóand like calls to like. God or a criminal? And the criminals choose the criminal.
The sixth and seventh criminals are those who hang, each on his cross, on Golgotha, one at Christís right hand and one at His left, as Isaiah the prophet foresaw and foretold: He was numbered with the transgressors. (Isa 53:12). One of these criminals, even in his death-throes, is blaspheming, but the other is praying. Here are two men in the same predicament: both of them nailed to a cross, both at the point of leaving this world and looking for nothing more from it. But what a great difference! Here is the answer to all who say: place people in the same material circumstances, give them all the same honor and possessions, and they will all have the same spirit. One criminal, near his last breath, mocks the Son of God: If Thou be Christ, save Thyself and us! (Lk 23:39), but the other begs the Lord: Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom. (Lk 23:42). The pain of crucifixion kills the one in both body and soul, but although it kills the otherís body, it saves his soul. Christís Cross is a scandal to the one, but salvation to the other.
These were the types of criminal around Christ. But, O gracious Lord, help us to look at our own lives before we condemn these criminals who nailed the Lord of love to the Cross, and ask ourselves if we do not also belong to their company. Oh, that we could be even like the seventh of them, who repented on the cross and, in the midst of his physical pain, sought and found salvation for his sinful soul.
If a man breathes out hatred for God and man, the same is Satanís closest friend and his sharpest weapon.
If a man is filled with envy towards God-pleasing men and servants of Christ, this man is a criminal and a God-killer like Annas and Caiaphas, and the rest of the leaders and elders of the Jews.
If a man is covetous, he is not far from betraying God, and his closest friend in the criminal company of this world is Judas.
If a man is weak-minded in defense of the righteous, and so fearful for his position and comfort that he would even agree to the killing of the righteous, he is a criminal as Pilate was.
If a man raises a rebellion and sheds menís blood, and
another suffers in his place, either through miscarriage of justice or human
wickedness, he is a criminal as Barabbas was.
If a man blasphemes against God his whole life long, either in word or deed, and this blasphemy is on his lips even at the moment of deathóhe is indeed a spiritual brother of the blaspheming criminal on the cross.
Blessed, though, is he who, suffering for his sins, neither blasphemes against any man nor condemns any, but calls his sin to mind and cries to God for forgiveness and salvation. Blessed is this seventh criminal, who understood that his pains on the cross were deserved because of his sins, and understood the pains of the innocent Saviour as being undeserved suffering for the sins of others, and who repented, begged for Godís mercy and found himself first in the Paradise of eternal life together with the Saviour! These revelations come to us through him: saving repentance, even at the moment of death, the saving nature of prayer to God and the swiftness of Godís compassion.
He has left us all a wonderful example, whatever sort of sin we have committed, in whatever way we have separated ourselves from God and numbered ourselves among the criminals. Every sin is a crime against God, and he who commits a single sin is numbered among the criminals: that is, the servants of Satan. Let no one, therefore, grumble that his suffering is to his peril rather than to his salvation, but may the darkness of his suffering be illumined by reflecting on his sin, and by repentance and prayer. Only thus will suffering be, for him, not to his peril but to his salvation.