This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 23:35–43:
The rulers sneered at Jesus and said,
“He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.” Even the soldiers jeered at him. As they approached to offer him wine they called out, “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.” Above him there was an inscription that read, “This is the King of the Jews.”
Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
How many readers would recognize the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man? Of course, that’s a fiction within a fiction, a great gag from a great movie, 1984’s Ghostbusters. It becomes the final nemesis in the film when the evil spirit Gozar demands that the four heroes “choose the form of The Destructor.” Ray inadvertently chooses his favorite food icon, and a gigantic and malevolent marshmallow man begins stomping through New York City.
It’s a wildly funny scene, and — if you don’t mind a spoiler or two — it gets even better when the marshmallow man gets blown up along with Gozar and ends up with melted marshmallow everywhere. It’s such a great gag that the recent follow-up film Ghostbusters: Afterlife picks it up to great comic effect again.
These are funny films and meant for just entertainment, but today’s Gospel reading asks us to consider a similar question. And more to the point, it also promises that it is never too late to answer it.
Start with our first reading today from 2 Samuel, in which the tribes of Israel come together to recognize their new king, David. That story starts earlier, however; until the reign of Saul, David’s predecessor, the Israelites had never had a temporal king at all. They recognized the Lord as their only king, and submitted to the governance of His judges and even more so the prophets the Lord sent.
Samuel was among the mightiest of the prophets, but when he grew old, the Israelites grew restless and longed for a temporal ruler. In 1 Samuel 8, they demanded that Samuel appoint a man among them as king, a rejection of the Lord’s authority and an embrace of material power over their mission to become a nation of priests to the world. Samuel warns them in 1 Samuel 8:10-18 that a king would not just provide lordship for its own sake (as opposed to the Lord’s love and eternal power), but also seize the material possessions of the Israelites as the king saw fit.
What did they choose? “No! but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations.” The Lord then instructed Samuel to allow them to make that choice and to anoint a new king in His place. Samuel chose the most handsome and sturdy man in Israel, Saul, who would lead them to great victories — but who would become undone through jealousy for God’s love of David and lead Israel into brief ruin. And while the rule of David and Solomon would lead Israel back to worldly greatness for an era, the kings of Israel would lead the Lord’s people to division, corruption, idolatry, and ruin several times over in pursuit of worldly power rather than the will of the Lord.
The choice on Golgotha reflects this same question, and the same two paths for all of us. Do we choose the world as our salvation, or do we choose the Lord? The thief on Jesus’ left is sometimes considered sardonic and belittling, mocking Jesus for His supposed pretense as the Messiah. Luke certainly sees it that way, describing the thief as “reviling” Jesus.
However, it may well be that this man only saw salvation in the context of the material world — just like the Israelites of Samuel’s time. The Messiah was supposed to be the new King of Israel, after all, a man who would re-establish the Davidic kingdom and drive out all of the usurpers and occupiers. Those who held that view saw the Messiah in the same way that the ancient Israelites envisioned a human king — a way to establish power, in part by usurping the power of the Lord.
If the thief on the left believed in that vision of the Messiah, then this was his last chance to cling to any life at all. If Jesus didn’t climb down from the cross, he was going to die, and so would all of the pretensions of temporal power and authority.
The thief on the right, by tradition named Dismas, chooses the other path. Rather than rely on the material world all around him, Dismas chooses to trust in Jesus and submit to His authority. Jesus forgives the Penitent Thief and promises that he will join Jesus in Paradise before this day comes to an end.
We choose the form of our salvation on a daily basis, and in doing so also choose the forms, plural, of our destruction. It doesn’t take a mythical and magical Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man to ruin our souls; we ruin it in sin by making the material world our salvation. We seek out kings of various kinds to rule us, whether it be sex, money, power, hatred, or any combination of those and other corrupting influences. We can choose poorly (another movie reference!) so often that we feel as though we can never return to the true path of salvation in the Lord.
What happens when we choose the world over the Lord? The salvation history of the Israelites shows us the answer. Their worldly ambitions get realized … for a time. The price of that, however, is idolatry and rejection of the Lord’s laws. It becomes apparent that those laws were intended to hold the Israelites together rather to punish or weaken them, and they eventually divide into two kingdoms and enmity grows between them. Weakened, they both fall; even when the Judeans repent and renew their commitment to the Law and are restored, they too get corrupted by worldly ambition.
If that sounds bleak, though, today’s Gospel gives us reason to hope. Dismas’ last-minute conversion shows us the scope of God’s mercy and love. Dismas chooses the way of the Lord as his form of salvation the way at literally the last hour of Dismas’ life. Does Jesus reject Dismas over an entire life spent in sin? Absolutely not; Jesus accepts the penitence of Dismas and promises him salvation that very day.
This, then, is our daily struggle. Do we choose as the other thief did when facing our own crosses and tribulations — the way of the world and the dominion of other people? Or do we follow Dismas and choose the Lord and His saving grace? We can make that right choice every day, and even when we stray, we can ask Christ to guide us back to Him. That is the only true path of salvation.
Update: Fixed the last paragraph and the reference to Dismas’ choice.
The front-page image is a detail from “Christ and the Good Thief” by Titian, c. 1566. On display at the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.