a reflection by David Deacon-Joyner, Living Stones board member
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 we 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 (NIV)
In the view of the legal system of Roman and Jewish authorities who were in charge of Jerusalem 2000 year ago, three criminals were being executed for their crimes on that first Good Friday. Given the intense agony these three were going through, it is incredible that they had any kind of conversation at all, much less the profound dialog recorded in the gospel of Luke. One of the "criminals" was Jesus Christ, a victim of betrayal, false charges, and a corrupt and self-serving government. The other two men were indeed criminals, robbers according to Matthew's gospel (Matt. 27:38).
While Matthew states that both criminals joined the bystanders at the crucifixion in mocking Jesus (27:44), Luke tells a much different story. One of the criminals demanded that, if Jesus was who he said he was, he should save them all. It was not a plea, a request, or a petition, but a challenge, a spiteful statement of disbelief, and self-serving manipulation. He just wanted his physical situation to change, even if he was unrepentant of the crime he committed and looking for an undeserved way out of his punishment. But, according to Luke, the other criminal was actually more tormented by the conviction of his sinful life than by the brutal execution he was enduring. Hanging right next to the earthly manifestation and fulfillment of God's grace, Jesus Christ, this man suddenly "got it." He believed and trusted that Christ was who he said he was, that this wasn't just a poor innocent dying for nothing. Yes, he was a robber and, yes, he was getting his punishment as dictated by the laws of the land, but he knew at that moment that, though considered the lowest of humanity by others, God's love and grace were even for him. His starving spirit cried out to Jesus to include him among the saved. Even in the final hours of his life, he knew it was never too late for repentance, a total change of heart and direction. He certainly wasn't going to come down off his cross and earn his salvation through his good works, but he was saved by faith alone (Ephesians 2:8). Jesus assured him that "today you will be with me in paradise." In some Christian traditions, this man is known as St. Dismas, the penitent thief.
Among criminals in prison, manipulation is currency. It gets you things and gets you out of things. It establishes your place in the pecking order and elevates your status. It gets people on your side. With nothing but time on your hands in prison, you have plenty of time to hone the skill to lie and ingratiate the target of your scheme. The practice is still alive and well, as demonstrated by the recent case of Richard Matt and David Sweat's escape from the Clinton prison in upstate New York. Through patient grooming of prison staff members, they were able to acquire the help they needed for their attempt at unearned freedom. It was a lose-lose situation for all involved.
Manipulation is a real danger in prison ministry, too. Opportunists see compassionate and loving people who endeavor to love them and support their spiritual needs as victims that they can either charm or shame to their own ends. In our volunteer training, we are instructed to be empathetic but not gullible. In our spiritual training, we are instructed to discern between those who are just saying what we want to hear and those who are truly repentant and seeking God's grace in their life. That's what Jesus did so well in his discourse with the criminals on their crosses.
The question might come up, "So why risk manipulation hanging around men and women in prison? They are just going to use you." My first, shortest, and simplest answer is that I just like being with the men and worshipping with them. My other answer would be that those on the inside are nothing more and nothing less than a mirror of us on the outside. If you think about yourself or those you've encountered either in the church or in the rest of your life, you've experienced manipulation and what Deitrich Bonhoeffer refers to as "cheap grace." At some point, we've all played the game to avoid the real conviction of sin and the glorious gift of unearned forgiveness through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 1 John 1:18 tell us "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." If you have been duped in the course of ministering to others, it would be easy to be discouraged and just do something else. But if, on the other hand, you have met a St. Dismus that, no matter what their physical predicament, hungers and seeks the presence of God, has truly transformed rather than conformed (Romans 12:2), and needs fellowship and an advocate to help them on their journey to salvation, you just can't stay away. We volunteer ministers, visiting congregants, and Pastor Norm Arnold at Living Stones Prison Ministry aren't these inmates' savior, but fellow members of the body of Christ, his bride the church. Sharing in the suffering of past sins and deeds and the gratitude of God's love is a wonderful time to lift each other up. To see a life truly transformed, particularly within the walls of a prison, is to truly be beside Jesus and to be taken with him to paradise, and, you know what, you don't even have to die to get there!