Friday, 18 April 2014

Two Thieves



A Buddhist Story: Two Tigers and a Strawberry

A man was walking through the forest one day when he spotted a tiger in the distance. What was worse, the tiger had spotted him, and because it hadn’t eaten for a day or two, it bounded at great speed after the poor man. Now a human being is no match for a tiger in the speed department, and very soon the hungry beast was so close that the man could almost feel its hot breath on his neck. Ahead of him was a cliff, and he had no option but to throw himself down in order to escape the tiger’s salivating jaws. Fortunately, he was able to grab hold of a thick vine which was trailing down the cliff side, and he clung on to it for dear life, congratulating himself on his good fortune.
          It was a long drop to the ground below, but a sprained ankle was a small price to pay for his life, so he determined to let go of the vine and fall to the ground, but before he could do so, he heard a growl, and, glancing down, he saw another tiger looking hungrily up at him! Up above him was a tiger; down below him was a tiger; both of them wanted to eat him; what could he do? ‘Perhaps one of them will get tired of waiting and move away. If I can just hang on here for an hour or so I should be fine,’ he thought.
          Then, two mice, one white, one black, came out of a small hole in the cliff side and began to gnaw the vine. The poor man could see that it wouldn’t be long before they had chewed through and he would fall to his certain death into the waiting mouth of the tiger down below. Then, a beautiful smell caught his attention. Just near his right hand a big, juicy, wild strawberry was growing. Holding on to the vine with his left hand, he picked the strawberry with his right hand, and popped it into his mouth. It was the most delicious strawberry he had ever eaten in his life!

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The Angel of the Resurrection says not 'Arise ye who are dead' 
but 'Arise ye who are living'. Balzac

Jan Van Eyck (c.1430)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Society of St. Dismas is one of those very worthy Catholic organisations which attempt to fill the gaps in state provision for the underprivileged. Like the St. Vincent de Paul Society, it is dedicated to the welfare of those neglected members of the community, the ones that people – and governments – often prefer to forget about. But whereas the St. Vincent de Paul Society has a general ministry to the unfortunate, the Society of St. Dismas has a very specific one: it tries to help ex-prisoners, people who are trying to get their life together after spending some time in jail.
            It takes its name from the so-called ‘good thief’, one of the two men who were supposedly crucified with Jesus; Dismas was the one who, according to Luke’s Gospel, repented just before his death, and asked for Jesus’ blessing. The story goes like this:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him, ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’
But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’
Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
            Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth. Today you will be with me in paradise.’ (Luke 23: 39-43)

The man is not named in the Gospel text; he was given the name ‘Dismas’(from a Greek word meaning ‘sunset’ or ‘death’) much later, probably during the 12th century, and the name has stuck. He has his own feast day, 25th March, which is considered by some to be the actual date of the crucifixion, In addition to a name, Dismas has been given a biography of sorts. Legend has it that when Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were fleeing into Egypt to escape King Herod, they were set upon by a band of brigands, one of whom recognised that there was something special about the members of this family and ordered his fellow bandits to leave them alone. This was Dismas, apparently. And, with a coincidence worthy of a Thomas Hardy novel, the next time he met Jesus was when he was crucified beside him.
It says something very significant about the function of stories in human life that we seem to feel the need to flesh out the shadowy characters of history or scripture; that a mixture of imagination and piety can turn a few stray facts into sagas of flesh and blood people, complete with parents, colleagues, careers, relationships, and personalities. We’ve done the same thing with characters who appear at Jesus’ birth. The story of the wise men is told very simply in the Gospel of Matthew. We aren’t told their names; we aren’t even told that there are three of them. ‘Three’ is derived from the number of gifts that they bring – it’s quite logical to assume that three gifts must equal three gift givers! But in the middle ages these anonymous men became Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, and what’s more, you can find a casket containing their remains in Cologne cathedral! These days there’s even a story of the Fourth Wise Man, a pious tale about someone called Artaban, who gets delayed on the way to Bethlehem, but eventually catches up with Jesus at his crucifixion.
            All of which is very charming, but when it comes to scripture it is not without its problems, and these are particularly acute as far as Dismas is concerned. Insisting that this man is a genuine character from history has generated some intriguing theological puzzles. Think about it for a moment. Jesus is promising that this man will be with him in paradise, and yet doesn’t Catholic theology teach us that only the baptised can get to heaven? It’s pretty plainly stated elsewhere in the scriptures: ‘Unless a man is born again of water and the holy spirit, he will not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ But how could Dismas receive baptism? There have been many attempts to solve this particular conundrum. I was taught that there were other kinds of baptism – ‘baptism of desire’, and ‘baptism of blood’ for example. Those who desperately wished for baptism, but who died before they could receive it, would be considered baptised, as would those who were martyred. So, Dismas could presumably come under one or other of these categories. Then there are those who say that Dismas didn’t in fact go to heaven at all, but to Limbo, the place of the unbaptised righteous, but since Limbo was abolished by the pope in 2006, one might legitimately ask where he might be now. And if he only got as far as Limbo he can’t be a real saint, so praying to him could be considered pretty pointless.
            A more sophisticated theological problem concerns the word ‘today’ in Jesus’ words, ‘I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise.’  If it means that Dismas will be in heaven with Jesus that very day (i.e. the first Good Friday) then what is the point of the resurrection? Or the ascension? Incidentally, while this is a big enough problem for traditional Christians, it is an almost insuperable one for Jehovah’s Witnesses, who don’t believe that the soul survives bodily death. What could Jesus have meant, they ask. Their ingenious solution is that he wasn’t telling Dismas that he would be in paradise with him today, he was giving him the information today that he would be in paradise eventually, that he would be resurrected one day in the future. It all depends on where you put the comma. Such things are no laughing matter. People have died over such arguments.
But when we were taught these things at school such arcane theological questions didn’t bother us. We raised more practical issues with the teacher. It didn’t seem fair, we said. Here’s a man who has spent his life doing wicked things and just because at the last minute he says he’s sorry he gets into heaven. And then we asked, ‘Does that mean that we can do the same?’ It conjured up some intriguing possibilities. You could live a life of complete debauchery, but as long as you are in a position to say ‘sorry’ at the end of it all you’ll be okay. We were even taught that if we attended mass on the first Friday of nine successive months, we would be guaranteed the grace of final repentance. This guarantee was given in a vision to St. Margaret Mary, a 17th century nun, and still forms part of popular Catholic piety. The Roman Emperor Constantine, who lived centuries before St. Margaret Mary, was a great believer in final repentance. Although he became a Christian in mid life, he refused to be baptised until he was on his death bed, so that all his sins could be washed away in one go and he would get into heaven without any problems. And his sins were pretty horrific; the history books tell us that his later years were stained with bloodshed, and he had his eldest son and his wife executed.  Apparently, he kept a priest in attendance at all times just so that he wouldn’t be taken by surprise.
While we schoolboys were somewhat cheered by the thought of final repentance, we couldn’t help but feel some sympathy for the unfortunate person in the opposite situation, the one who lives a pretty good life but who commits one mortal sin and dies before he has had the opportunity to repent. ‘How can that be right?’ we asked. Consideration of such hypothetical situations has kept Catholic teachers on their toes for generations, and they have exercised the casuistic skills of the finest theologians.
            So, charming as it might be to flesh out the rudimentary stories of scripture with imaginative details, it can lead to complications. But the most significant result of such activity is that it helps to obscure the real power behind the text. It is my opinion, and I’ve expressed it on countless occasions, that the stories in the gospels are not historical narratives.  Their principal function is not to tell us about the life of a man called Jesus of Nazareth. They are stories about us, about what it means to be a human being, and this episode with the two thieves, which looks a little like an afterthought, an almost pointless detail, is extraordinarily important in this regard. That the Gospel writers thought it important is proved by the fact that it is one of the few stories which appears in all four Gospels.

A 'Golgotha' (St Andrew's Church, Cullompton)
The person on the cross is you. It is I. It is Everyman, and Everywoman. Crucifixion is not just an archaic and barbaric punishment for a few unfortunate lawbreakers; it is a condition of life. Crucifixion is the perfect metaphor for the human situation because, unlike most types of execution, it delivers a slow, lingering, painful death. What’s more, it takes place for all of us on Golgotha, Calvary, ‘the place of the skull’ (Golgotha is Aramaic for 'skull', Calvary is 'skull' in Latin) which is itself an image of life stripped down to its skeletal essentials. We are all poised in pain on the cross of life. None escapes, and all attempts to insulate ourselves from life’s pains are fruitless. Even the rich and famous, even the super talented and super beautiful, even the spiritually advanced, suffer the pains of loss, of vulnerability, of mortality. And, just like Jesus, each of us is crucified between two thieves – one on the right and one on the left. The Gospel text may not tell us their names, and the original story, as found in Mark's Gospel doesn't tell us that one of them repented; but the Gospels are clear about their position; and it specifies that they are thieves – not just any old criminals. In Greek they are called δύο λῃστάς, two bandits, men who steal with violence. What do these bandits steal? They steal our life. They are the past and the future, the twin thieves of everyone’s life. The past is on the left, the future on the right. The past consumes us with regret, remorse, revenge, nostalgia, habit; the future eats away at our life with anxiety, uncertainty, procrastination, fear. ‘Life is what happens while you’re making plans,’ said John Lennon, not originally, I might add, but memorably enough. Life is what happens while you are regretting the past and afraid of the future. When, then, is the transformed life? Jesus told the repentant thief: TODAY. ‘I tell you, today, you will be with me in Paradise.’ We enter into the life of promise today. Now. It’s now or never. By destroying, or transforming, those twin thieves of our lives we enter into a whole new way of being, resurrected life, when the tomb which held us fast is broken open, and we discover a new relationship with life, and a new understanding of its pains. This is the consistent message of the world’s spiritual traditions. This is the perennial philosophy. This is what Easter means. The message of Easter is not that once upon a time a single individual’s death paid the price of sin and he was rewarded by having his corpse reanimated. It is, rather, that Everyman and Everywoman can and must wake up from the unlived life and save the world from the corrosive effects of sleep. The story of the literal crucifixion and literal resurrection from physical death of a single human being is biologically impossible, historically implausible, and, in the way that it is often presented, it is morally questionable. But the story of our own resurrection from spiritual death while we are still alive is the most important and liberating message we will ever hear.   


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