There is a bit of puzzlement at the following question: Why was Christ crucified between two thieves? It might make one wonder why one would ask this question at all. Perhaps one could also ask why the Passion was on a Friday, or, why Jesus died at 3:00 PM instead of 4:00 PM. These sorts of questions could go on forever.
Nevertheless, some of the best insights come from pondering seemingly insignificant questions. Seldom do the Gospel writers and the Holy Spirit provide a detail in the accounts that they do not want us to wonder about, or that is not in the text for a good reason.
So then why was Christ crucified between two thieves? Was it just an historical accident? One can hardly imagine that God permitted any detail of the most pivotal moment in salvation history to occur merely by accident.
St. Thomas Aquinas proposes a number of answers. The first is the one with which I am most familiar. Referencing St. Jerome, St. Thomas writes,
As Christ became accursed of the cross for us, so for our salvation He was crucified as a guilty one among the guilty (Comm. xxxiii in Matth) (Summa Theologica III, 46, 11).
In other words, Jesus bore our guilt and our shame, though He Himself was sinless (see 1 Peter 2:24 and Isaiah 53:4). He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth (Is 53:9). And thus Christ took up and endured the reproaches we deserved.
The second and more interesting answer from St. Thomas is this:
As Pope Leo observes (Serm. iv de Passione): “Two thieves were crucified, one on His right hand and one on His left, to set forth by the very appearance of the gibbet that separation of all men which shall be made in His hour of judgment.” And Augustine on John 7:36: “The very cross, if thou mark it well, was a judgment-seat: for the judge being set in the midst, the one who believed was delivered, the other who mocked Him was condemned. Already He has signified what He shall do to the quick and the dead; some He will set on His right, others on His left hand.” … because of the cleavage between believers and unbelievers, the multitude is divided into right and left, those on the right being saved by the justification of faith (Summa Theologica III, 46, 11).
Thus this moment points to the final judgment, when Christ, seated on His throne as Judge of the World and Lord of all, will have some to His right and others to His left; some will be the sheep and others the goats; some will be the wise virgins and others the foolish ones. Those on His right will hear, Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world (Matt 25:34). Those on his left will hear, Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt 25:41).
St. Thomas also addresses an expected objection that in Matthew’s version both thieves reviled him:
As Augustine says (De Consensu Evang. iii): We can understand Matthew “as putting the plural for the singular” when he said, “the thieves reproached Him.” Or it may be said, with Jerome, that “at first both blasphemed Him, but afterwards one Believed in Him on witnessing the wonders” (Ibid, ad 3).
It is a remarkable image of the crucifixion: Christ is seated on the throne of His cross. His arms are extended in mercy, offering mercy to the very end. But only the repentant thief accepted the offer. Thus he heard, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
This vision of Christ on the cross as depicting His role as judge presents Christ as a judge who poses a question to the thieves more so than as one who merely passes sentence on them. There is no recounting of the sins and crimes of the thieves, no lengthy weighing of the evidence. There is the offer of mercy and the awaiting of a response.
For these men, and one day for us, this is the final moment. The responses are given and are final. The one thief repents and receives paradise; mysteriously, the other curses and condemns himself to living apart from mercy in Hell. The rejection of God’s offer always remains deeply mysterious; it must, it would seem, proceed from a heart that is obtuse and hardened.
Jesus laments the fact that many, not few, end by rejecting Him and His offer: For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow, and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matthew 7:13-14). In this passage He gives a partial explanation for their rejection: it is because “the way is hard.”
The third answer by St. Thomas as to why Jesus was crucified between two thieves is this:
Bede says on Mark 15:27: “The thieves crucified with our Lord denote those who, believing in and confessing Christ, either endure the conflict of martyrdom or keep the institutes of stricter observance. But those who do the like for the sake of everlasting glory are denoted by the faith of the thief on the right; while others who do so for the sake of human applause copy the mind and behavior of the one on the left.”
Yes, to follow Christ on this earth involves suffering and rejection. It also involves a stricter observance, which postpones certain passing pleasures in order to inherit greater and lasting ones, which rejects apparent goods in order to receives true goods. There are some who are willing to endure this and others who are not.
The bad thief wanted to be taken down, not to go up. The good thief was willing to endure the cross to go up to paradise.
There are some powerful insights here.
Thank you, Lord, for being counted among the wicked, though innocent, in order to save us. Thank you for your offer of mercy. Help us to remember that the decision is ultimately ours and that we access your mercy through the repentance manifested by the good thief. Help us, Lord, to endure and be taken up, rather than to insist on being taken down.