The Gospel on God Among the Criminals
by Saint Nikolai Velimirović
hrist on Golgotha! The Savior 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 event—mysterious as infinity, hard as earth and terrible as hell? Of millions of events every day throughout the universe, that our eyes can see and our ears hear, with what event can we compare this unspeakable 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 skilful man's fall into a machine that he had himself assembled, to be cut to pieces by the machine's 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 God's 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 David's 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 (Luke 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 Christ's great light, and in their blindness have put themselves into Satan's 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 Christ's 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 Lord –jealousy 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" (John 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 (Matthew 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 Nicodemus 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 (John 7:50-52).
The third criminal is Judas, the seeming, shameful apostle. Satan took part in the shedding of Christ's 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: "l 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 (Matthew 21:4-5). And his horrible death itself testifies against him, for it is written of him: and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out (Acts 1:18).
The fourth criminal is Pilate, Caesar's 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 Christ's condemnation: "Take ye Him, and judge Him according to your law" (John l8:31) are his words to Christ's accusers. Later, he is on Christ's side and, after a form of trial, tells the Jews: I find in Him no fault at all (v.38). Finally, cowed by threats: "lf thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend" (19:12), Pilate gives sentence that it should be as they required (Luke 23:24), and orders that Christ be flogged and crucified. Pilate's 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?" (John l9:10). With this statement, Pilate takes upon himself for all time the responsibility for Christ's 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 Caesar's mercy.
The fifth criminal is Barabbas. He is in prison at this time for sedition...and for murder (Luke 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 Barabbas—and 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 Christ's right hand and one at His left, as Isaiah the prophet foresaw and foretold: "He was numbered with the transgressors" (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: "lf Thou be Christ, save Thyself and us!" (Luke 23:39), but the other begs the Lord: "Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom" (23:42). The pain of crucifixion kills the one in both body and soul, but although it kills the other's body, it saves his soul. Christ's 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 Satan's 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 men's 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 death—he 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 Savior as being undeserved suffering for the sins of others, and who repented, begged for God's mercy and found himself first in the Paradise of eternal life together with the Savior! 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 God's 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.
And now, when we have looked at all the criminals who were gathered around Christ the Lord, let us pause for a moment before the Lord Himself, and see how He looks among the criminals. Above all, let us look carefully for a moment at the Garden of Gethsemane, where the weary disciples were sleeping while the Lord knelt in prayer and in agony;
"Father, if Thou be willing, remove this cup from Me; nevertheless, not My will, but Thine, be done" (Luke 22:42), and His sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground (22:44). Christ's divinity is inseparable from His humanity, although at times the one, and at times the other, is more evident to our eyes. Seeing Him as the weak Child in the cave, we see Him as a man. Seeing Him in the flight to Egypt, or in the years of silent work at Nazareth, again we see Him as a man. Seeing Him hungry and thirsty, weary from His travels, we see Him as a man. But when we see Him raising the dead, multiplying bread, healing the insane and the lepers, stilling the storm, stopping the wind and walking on the water as on dry land—then we indeed see, not a man, but God. In the Garden of Gethsemane, we see Him as both God and man. As God—for while three of the greatest men in the world, His first three apostles, sleep from weariness, He tirelessly keeps vigil, praying on His knees. As God—for who would ever have been able, or dared, to speak to God as "Father" except His only-begotten Son, who as the Son knew His unity of being with God the Father. As God—for who among mortal men would have dared to say that, at his word, "twelve legions of angels" (Matthew 26:53) would fly down to him? As man—because He, as a man, kneels on the dusty ground; as a man He sweats from the anguish; as a man He struggles with Himself; as a man He shrinks from suffering and death; as a man He prays to be spared the bitter cup of suffering.
Who can describe and assess Christ's sufferings on that dreadful night before the Crucifixion, suffering of soul and body? If the physical pain on the Cross was the greater, here the greater pain was in His soul. For it is said that he was in agony. This is inner agony, agony of the soul; it is His human nature seeking consolation from the Father; it is a mysterious colloquy of the Man with the invisible, divine Godhead about something on which the whole created world depends, from its beginning to its end. On one hand, the terrible sufferings of the Man from whom sweat pours like drops of blood in the chill of night; and on the other, God's plan for man's salvation. These two were in conflict, and had to be brought into accord. The Man said: "if Thou be willing, remove this cup from Me;" the God-Man (the obedient Son) added: "nevertheless, not My will, but Thine, be done" (Luke 22:42). And God determined that the cup must be drunk. And when the Man had accepted God's decision, His soul was once more at peace, a peace unknown on earth, that could not be broken by betrayal, spitting, mocking, buffeting or the crown of thorns, nor by lies, slander, ingratitude or all the mindless shouting, or even the pain of crucifixion. The Lord Jesus carried off the greatest victory over Satan in the Garden of Gethsemane, and did this in His obedience to God the Father. Through disobedience to God, Adam was overcome by Satan; through obedience to God, Christ overcame Satan, giving salvation to Adam and his descendants. In the Garden of Eden, Satan overcame man; in the Garden of Gethsemane, Man overcame Satan. This was the conflict that the Gospel records. It was necessary for man to be the victor—man, not God, so that all men could have before them this example of conflict and victory—a human example that could be imitated. And so God left Jesus the Man to battle with Satan and all his powers. Hence the horrific agony of the Man; hence the cry "remove this cup from Me!" Hence the sweat as it were great drops of blood falling from His face. But, if the flesh is weak, the spirit is willing. And the spirit was victorious, first over the flesh and then over Satan. It may be that Satan was not able to grasp that he was completely defeated in the Garden of Gethsemane, and continued to rejoice in the Lord's mocking, crucifixion and death. But when the Lord, through death and the tomb, descended like a thunderbolt into Satan's kingdom, then Satan realized that his seeming victory on Golgotha was simply the culmination of his defeat in the Garden of Gethsemane.
In the same way that the Lord Jesus hungered and thirsted as a man, in the same way that He was wearied as a man, that He ate and slept as a man, walked and spoke, wept and rejoiced, so He suffered as a man. Let none of us, then, say: it was easy for Him to suffer—He was God!—but how shall I cope with suffering? Such words are empty words, that stem from ignorance and lassitude of spirit. Christ did not find suffering easy, for He suffered, not as God, but as man. And furthermore, suffering was harder for Him, the innocent and Sinless One, than for us, who are guilty and sinful. Let us never forget that, when we suffer, we are suffering for our sins. The Lord Jesus did not suffer because of Himself or for Himself, but because of men and for men, for many men and for all men's sins. And when one sin brought death to Adam; when one sin placed an eternal mark of shame on Cain's forehead; when, for two or three sins, David suffered so much; when, for many sins, Jerusalem was destroyed and Israel taken off into captivity—you can imagine the suffering that He had to endure, when great mountains of the sins of all people in all ages were heaped upon Him! These were terrible sins: sins because of which the earth opened up and swallowed men and cattle; sins because of which whole cities and peoples were destroyed; sins because of which the Flood came, and famine and drought and pestilence and grasshoppers and caterpillars; sins that brought about wars between nations, wastes and destruction; sins that opened the gates of the human soul to invasion by mad spirits; sins because of which the sun was darkened, the sea was troubled and the rivers dried up. What is the use of counting them? Can the sand in the sea or the grass in the meadow be counted? All these sins, each one of which is as mortal as the venom from the most poisonous snake—for the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23)—every single one was heaped upon the innocent Man Jesus. He took our sins upon Him. Is it, then, strange that sweat falls from His brow as it were great drops of blood? Is it strange that He should plead: "remove this cup from Me?" Lo, "scarcely for a righteous man will one die ... but ... while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:7-8). Imagine yourself being taken to the scaffold for the sake of one righteous man, and think how difficult it would be. And imagine yourself on the scaffold for a criminal—and at that, one who has committed a crime against you. Think of your being condemned to death for his salvation! Sweat will pour from you at the very thought! Only then will you have some idea of Christ's bloody sweat. And then you will, terrified, amazed and driven to the edge of sanity, cry aloud: Behold the Man who is God!
"Behold the man!" cried Pilate to the Jewish rabble, bringing Christ forth to them wearing the crown of thorns and a purple robe. Why did Pilate say this? Was it from amazement at Christ's dignity, calmness and silence, or with the intention of arousing the Jews' sympathy? Perhaps the one and the other. Let us cry in wonder: "Behold the Man!" Behold the real, true and glorious Man, man as God had him in mind when He created Adam. Behold the Man—meek, humble and obedient to the will of God, as Adam was in Paradise before he sinned and was driven out. Behold the Man without hatred or evil, with unshakeable calm in the midst of the storm of hatred and wickedness from men and demons! His battle was fought in the Garden of Gethsemane. At the moment that He cried, for the third and last time, "Thy will be done", peace came to His soul. This peace enfolded Him in a dignity that provoked the Jews and caused Pilate to marvel. He gave his body over to His Father's will, as He a little later gave His spirit into His Father's hands. He completely submitted His human will to the divine will of His heavenly Father. Wishing ill to no man, the innocent Lamb fell to His knees beneath the weight of the Cross on the way to Golgotha. It was not the wood of the Cross that was so heavy, but the sins of mankind; sins that were, together with His body, to be nailed to the wood of the Cross.
But what are we saying when we speak of Christ's wishing no ill to any man at this terrible time'? We have only said the half. He wished good to all men and all things. And even now we have not said the whole. He did not only wish good, but worked for the good of all to His dying breath. Even from the Cross itself, He worked for the good of all, even for that of those who nailed Him to the Cross. All that He could do for them in the pains of crucifixion, He did: He forgave them their sins.
"Father, forgive them; they know not what they do." This is not only a good wish, but a good work—the greatest good work that sinful men can ask of God. On the Cross, under death's hand, all twisted with the pain, the Lord is filled with concern for men's salvation. He forgives men their ignorance. He prays for the criminals that nailed Him to the Cross and pierced Him with a spear. He, at the time of His Crucifixion, fulfilled the great commandments that He had given to men: commandments on constant prayer, on compassion, on forgiveness, on love. Who has ever, falling into the hands of criminals, prayed for the criminals—prayed for their salvation, been concerned for them, forgiven their wicked acts? Even the best of men, falling into the hands of criminals, prayed to God only for their own safety, thought of their own good, were concerned for themselves and justified themselves. The most righteous men, before the coming of Christ, were unable to rise up in prayer for those who wronged them. They all called on God and man for revenge against those who had done evil to them. But see, the Lord forgives His enemies and is concerned for them; He forgives them and prays for them. What tiny things we remember for ill! For what tiny things do we take furious revenge! And we do this; we who, every day, call forth God's anger, transgressing His holy commandments by impure thoughts, impure desires and unjust deeds. None of us can call himself a man if he does not love his fellow-men. Love of our fellow-men alone can make men of us—real, true men. In vain do we look at the Lord on the Cross, in vain do we listen to His last prayer for sinners, if we have no love for our fellow-men and belong to that criminal company that condemned Him unjustly and put Him to death. Let us not, therefore, simply be filled with wonder at the Lord's love for mankind, but let there be shame with our wonder—shame for the extent to which this prayer from the Cross applies to us.
"The greater the love, the greater the suffering", says St Theodore the Studite. If we are, as yet, incapable of measuring the greatness of the love the Lord Jesus has for us, let us endeavor to measure the greatness of His sufferings for us. They were so great and so terrible that the very earth felt them and was shaken; the sun felt them and was darkened; the rocks, and were rent asunder; the curtain of the temple, and was torn in half; the graves, and were opened; the dead, and came forth from their graves; the centurion beneath the Cross, and confessed the Son of God; the thief on the cross, and repented. May our hearts, then, not be more blind than the earth, harder than rock, more insensitive than the grave and more dead than the dead. But may we repent like the thief on the cross, and worship the Son of God like Pilate's centurion beneath the Cross; that we may, together with our many holy brethren and sisters, be redeemed from death by Christ's sufferings, cleansed by His most precious blood, embraced by His holy, outstretched hands and made worthy of His immortal Kingdom. For he who neglects this will remain in this life in the criminal company of Antichrist, and in the world to come will have his place with the impenitent thief, far, far away from the face of God. For, though God was, at one time, among the criminals on earth, He will never be in their company in heaven.
Let us, then, bow down in worship before the Lord's sufferings, before Him crucified for us sinners. Let us confess and glorify His holy Name. Glory and praise be to Him: true Man and true God, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit—the Trinity consubstantial and undivided, now and forever, through all time and all eternity. Amen.
O O O
Nikolai Velimirović, Bishop of Ochrid, Homilies: A Commentary on the Gospel Readings For Great Feats and Sundays Throughout The Year (Birmingham: Lazarica Press, 1996) 195-203.