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The thieves on the cross 

Who were they – and what lessons can we learn from them? By Graham Reeves

Two Other Men Why does St Luke, alone among the Gospel writers, let the crucified thieves speak for themselves and let the reader hear Jesus’ response?

All four Gospels allow the reader to journey with Jesus through his public ministry, and to witness his arrest, trial, crucifixion and ultimately his glorious resurrection. And yet, when faced with the cruel events at Golgotha, when Jesus is hung between two thieves, two other men, it is only St Luke’s Gospel that lets the reader overhear the words that are passed between them.

Why Luke sees fit to include their part of the story is the question I explore in my new book.

His answer comes in the form of an examination of the Lucan text from several different angles, plumbing the depths of the thieves’ verbal exchanges and Jesus’ response in light of the overall message of St Luke’s Gospel. This is a message that reveals time and again the loving mercy of God, particularly toward those who feel themselves unworthy and outside the plan of salvation.

From the canonical texts, no personal details of the thieves are given other than that they deserved their punishment. However, the first chapter of Two Other Men aims to set before the reader a number of apocryphal texts that were written and circulated during the early centuries of the church, texts that give details concerning the thieves’ identities and their actions.

Fantastic as some of the stories are, they each aim to depict the unrepentant thief in the worst possible light but the repentant thief with a number of redeeming features. Using this framework, it is not difficult to see that the stories are intended to make it easier to place the thieves at opposing ends of a spectrum, from utterly bad and irredeemable to merely wayward and acceptable. I explore why this should be the response to the thieves and what it tells us of different ideas about the gospel.

However, the thieves are far from being the only contrasting figures in Luke’s Gospel. They come toward the end of a long line of other paired characters whom Luke uses to demonstrate, to varying degrees, a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ response to the presence of the divine, whether in the form of Jesus or an angel, or even God himself. These pairings include Zechariah and Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist, the Prodigal Son and his brother, Lazarus and the rich man, and the Pharisee and the tax collector.

Exploring these contrasting pairs alongside an examination of how eager St Luke is to portray the gentleness of God, and his recurring motif of Jesus as Saviour, Two Other Men begins to draw these themes together and apply them to the thieves with interesting insights and results.

A number of these insights have a distinctly pastoral element. For example, it is compelling to see how an in-depth meditation on the text of the thieves reveals the true nature of what we mean by ‘healing’ and the relevance of this to the healing ministry of the church. I show how the words of the thieves provide a psychological window into their characters, their motives and indeed their souls, and further how the response of the thieves to Jesus has something to say about the psychological torment of Jesus as He hangs in agony on the cross.

Toward the end of the book, other themes are picked up that again show how the stories of these men can be used to promote our own growth in holiness and inform our own response to Jesus. Sections on how the thieves are used within the church’s liturgical structure are examined, along with how they can each aid us in our prayer life, reflect upon our own death, and teach us about salvation.

The final chapter asks one last, difficult question: Is there any hope for the impenitent thief? To see how this book answers this question, it needs to be read!

Dr Ian Boxall, who provides the foreword, writes,

‘Read this book. Better, use this book as material for your own retreat. In it Reeves takes us on a journey, not simply into the lives of the two thieves at the cross, but also into our own lives, so as to understand ourselves more deeply.’

Two Other Men by Graham Reeves (978-1-909728-59-2), is published by Instant Apostle, RRP £8.99, is available from bookshops or online.

Father Graham is an Anglican Priest from the Diocese of Chichester. After serving in parishes in Cardiff he was appointed a mental health chaplain in 1998 in West Sussex. He is also a priest oblate of the Order of St Benedict and regularly leads retreats at The Abbey of Our Lady and St John, Alton, Hampshire. His first book, Before Them Set Thy Holy Will, examined the role of iconography in pastoral care. He is married to Jackie and has a son, Alex.


Baptist Times, 23/03/2017
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