The Cross, The Thief, and The Broken

The most identifiable icon in our history is a broken man on a cross. This is primarily due to it being the symbol of the largest religion humankind has ever dabbled during her first hundreds of thousands of years or so. This is also due however, to what it represents, or to what some claim it represents. For the last two-thousand years ago, the cross has been used as a banner for many people groups and the insignia for multitude of different causes. It has been used to activate great undertakings of humanitarian service, meeting the tangible needs of the poor and the marginalized worldwide. It has also been utilized to cause great damage, the amassing of power, influence, and the accumulation of resources. Just about every political party in the history of the West has at one point used the cross and the ideals they claim it represents, to push forward their agenda, claiming the man who once hung there would support their causes du jour.

The cross has been used to bring great optimism to the chronically discouraged. It has also been used as a source of great fodder to feed the unquenchable whims of the narcissist who demands that the world pay him a bit of attention. Some people see the cross and have great confidence that one day all will be made right in the world, and justice will flow like a mighty river. Others see the cross as a source of hypocrisy, tribalism, ideological agendas, and the thievery of innocence. Many have used it to build macro empires, seizing land and freedom of those whose opposed the religious ruling class. It has also been used to build micro, corporate esc empires, instituting a system of copy-and-paste Christianity while simultaneously serving as a source of sustenance and encouragement to the small-church pastor who has dedicated their life to slugging-it-out in the arduous trenches that is their community’s fallen-condition.

The cross has been used to purchase the latest pair of high-end sneakers, so that the minister on stage might remain “relevant.” It has also caused others to purchase a pair of shoes for the homeless who has no means to do so on their own. It has been used to deem women to a mere support role, keeping them quiet in church and busy in the kitchen. It has also been used to elevate women to positions of great leadership and respect, placing them resolutely behind the pulpit of our churches and the podiums of our higher institutions of learning.

The cross has been seen as a source of eternal wisdom and understanding of human disorder. It has also been seen as a source of blind arrogance, and a rejection of our physical realities. It has been used as an excuse for unnuanced retaliation, carrying out heavy-handed, eye-for-an-eye esc systems of justice. It has also been used to promote decisive acts of forgiveness and redemption. The cross has served as a divider; a partition between the adherents who fit a certain demographical and sociological description and those who do not. It has also served to pitch a large tent of acceptance and welcoming to all who seek comfort from an otherwise ruthless existence. It has been used to embrace some, while canceling others; to enslave some, while setting other’s free; to enrich some, while causing others to sell all that they own. The cross has been used by many to generate great wealth and status, while used by others as an altar to slay their ego and self-interested ambitions.

No matter how the cross of Jesus has been used and abused over the last couple of thousands of years, one thing that it undoubtedly represents a state of despair. The cross was for the poor. It was for the unconnected and the marginalized. It was the end of the line for certain criminals of certain classes and demographics. It served as the ultimate display of power for those who could command such an execution and it served as a final display of humiliation for those who dared challenge the tyrannical institutions of power. The cross was for the lowly, never the elite. The cross was for the criminal, never the model-citizen. The cross was for the outcasted, never the welcomed. The cross was for losers, never the victors. So, a natural question that arises is: What is Jesus doing on a cross?

For the billions who have professed some sort of faith in this man on a cross, this carpenter’s son from the region of first century Galilee, they view him as a deity. They believe him when he makes claims of eternality or the ability to forgive sins that were committed against others. Adherents of the faith called Christianity believe the eyewitness accounts of Jesus, such as when he made fermented wine out of water and when he fed numerous people from a simple serving of fish and bread. They even believe that his lowly, un-formally educated man, raised others from the dead with the simple power of his words. His followers see him not as a man. They see him as a god, equal to the great Creator, the One whom Christ claimed as equal in nature to himself. The cross is not for gods. It’s not even for the ruling class. So, the question continues: What is God doing on a cross?

Can he not crawl down? Isn’t there more in him than that? Can he not pull himself up by the bootstraps and make something out of himself? Can he not simply believe in himself? When he prayed that God remove him from this upcoming fate, did he not truly believe what he was asking? Can he not proclaim in faith that the nails are not pinning him to this primitive piece of wood nor blood flowing out of his side, nor thorns penetrating his forehead? Was his faith really that weak? Did he not know that God could do immeasurably more than he could ask, think, or imagine? What in the world is God doing hanging naked and broken on a cross? That’s not a sign of victory. It’s not a sign of great leadership, nor a solid church-growth strategy. It’s certainly not a sign of prosperity or decency. Why did God die on a cross meant for the poor and the rejected? 

It makes a bit more sense though, when one considered how Jesus lived his thirty something years of life. He did not just die a marginalized and underprivileged man; he lived that way as well. While the prominent, and yes even the Christian prominent, are often born into great pomp and celebration, Jesus himself was born in a stable, surrounded by livestock, after no suitable lodging was offered. While some use their faith to keep themselves securely isolated from the plight of the refugee, Jesus was a migrant himself, escaping certain death by fleeing to a more hospitable situation. While others would one day use his teachings as a means towards affluence, Jesus himself was raised poor, with humble and undesirable beginnings. While some would use the message of Jesus to grow in power and influence, Christ himself would often tell the recipients of his blessing to keep quiet, even talking some out of following him for the time being. While some use his teachings to keep a safe distance between themselves and those who they consider immoral or disgusting, it was these exact people whom Christ was drawn to.

One can make many observations about the cross and the life of Christ. One thing however that must be a takeaway, is the cross, and indeed the entire life and ministry of Christ was for the poor, the marginalized, the weak, the orphan, the promiscuous, the voiceless, the widow, the prisoner, the migrant, the forgotten; in short, the cross was for the Broken. The example of Christ, on that wretched yet beautiful cross, might teach us that victory is not upward mobility, expanding and accumulating. Victory often takes the shape of brokenness.

I love the story of the two thieves on the cross, as recorded by Luke. When Christ was crucified, he was hanged between two criminals whose record had landed them on the negative side of the Roman legal justice system. While their names are not recorded in Protestant canonized scripture, Christian tradition suggests that Gestas was suspended to the left of Jesus, while his accomplice Dismas was suspended to his right. Gestas, who apparently did not appreciate what rock-bottom looked like, joined the onlookers and religious leaders below in their heckling, hurling insults at Jesus as he hanged dying. Dismas however was more in tune with his own brokenness. He had accepted it and adjusted accordingly. After chiding his old friend Gestas for joining in the mockery, Dismas turned toward Christ and simply asked that he be remembered when Christ entered his Kingdom that very day… This was all. This was all the thief had to contribute towards his own salvation, “Remember me.” To this simple request Christ responded, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

He must have looked at Christ the way a vulnerable child looks at their mother; with an abidingly deep stare that, while no words are used, strongly communicates, “I know I have little to offer you. I am vulnerable, flawed, and often confused. But please… please do not reject me… please do take care of me.” A great mother recognizes that look and would never reject the child offering it to her, nor would Christ. There’s a reason we are called “children” in relation to God. We should embrace the most wonderful, childlike implications of that. Christ recognized the dependance that Dismas was casting on him, and the words that failed him to convey it. Dismas was a broken, broken individual, who had absolutely nothing to offer Christ, nor the opportunity to do so if he had. After spending the entirety of his life thieving from others, he spent his final hours bound to a cross himself. He was forced to live out, quite literally, the words of the hymnist Augustus Toplady who coined:

Nothing in my hand I bring,

Simply to the cross I cling;

Naked, come to the for dress,

Helpless, look to thee for grace[2]

Gestas, on the other hand was clearly not broken, even as he hanged dying, ridiculing Christ. Even during the final moments of his life, the plague of pride was much stronger than his body was weak. This is of course why pride is the most dangerous of all our dreadful human conditions. If not put in its place, as often as needed, the disease of pride will outlast our final breath.

Dismas the Thief had nothing. He was broken. That indeed was all he had to offer Christ, his simple brokenness. Christ asked nothing of Dismas in return either. No next steps. No new writings to read or rules to adhere. No, “And now you need to…” He had nothing to offer God. He had no church to join, no bread or wine to receive, no statements of faith to sign, no prayer to repeat, no water in which to be baptized. He didn’t even have the chance not be a criminal… All he had was his brokenness. Yet that sufficed. He is enjoying his proper place in Paradise with Christ Jesus today.

From the cells of his Gestapo prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, 

“God is weak and powerless in this world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which God can be with us and help us… it is not by his omnipotence that Christ helps us, but by his weakness and suffering.”[3]

That’s where we can also meet Christ today, if one is not afraid of such brokenness. It’s in the cruelest places that life has to offer where he waits quietly, in the trenches of the war, not the luxury of the palaces. Not on the frontlines of the war with a weapon, but in the medical tents, soothing the wounds of soldiers from both sides. That’s where Christ always meets those who wish to follow him, not in their triumphant platforms, but in the trenches of their brokenness. I like that. Trenches always seem much more assessable than palaces anyway.

We are so afraid to be them though, the Broken. We are so afraid to be associated with them. Because they are so easily overlooked, passed over, and forgotten, the very idea of being one of the Broken is terrifying. The idea of being excluded or marginalized is perhaps our greatest fear in life. It was in this very company however, where Jesus set up shop. It was among the Broken where Jesus lived, taught, ate, and slept. It was the Broken with whom Jesus fellowshipped with, laughed with, loved among, and identified with. Indeed, it was not until the last week of Christ’s life that he entered the gates of polite and religious society, and it did not work out well for him. When they finally got their chance, the religious leaders captured and kill this vile drunkard; this unclean lover of sinners, prostitutes, and lepers. It was the spiritual elite, not the Broken, who despised Jesus’ message of grace, and the large tent he pitched for the Broken to take refuge… They murdered him for it.

In his thirty something years on this earth, and in his few years of public ministry, Christ did not set up an earthly kingdom. He rejected power and the opportunity to hobnob with the elites. He did not write a book about how to elevate one’s leadership or the top five things one needs to know about running a successful nonprofit. He did not have a brand. He did not do anything by today’s standards that would scream a successful ministry… indeed quite the opposite. The numbers of followers he could post about at the end of his earthly ministry was zero, save for his mother and a few friends. He wouldn’t last long by our professional ministry standards today. Indeed, he would have easily been fired when the final numbers came in. What he did do, however, was live life among the Broken, and indeed even dying with them.

The message of the wretched yet beautiful cross is that the Savior himself felt our agony and our wounds. Pain is so prevalent in our world that God himself refused to live life without it. Many of the comforts and upward mobility that we are blessed to experience in our lives today, the earthly Christ would not recognize. He would however recognize our brokenness, our pain. So, despite our incessant desire to pretend we have our act together, maybe it is in our brokenness when we are nearest to him. If Bonhoeffer is right, about Christ being weak and powerless in the world (by our hierarchical standards of authority that is), then it is not in the halls of power where Christ can be found, but in the dark and despised gutters of humanity. There he waits, incognito, as a beggar, as a criminal, as a diseased outcast, as a fiend. It was the Broken and despised who maintained the ear and the heart of Christ. Why would he associate differently today?

For those of us who attempt to follow Jesus, we are attempting to follow a man, who at one point, stepped aside his throne, and emersed himself in our brokenness. He relinquished all accolades, and esteem, and jumped right into the trenches of humanity, with all of her wars, her fears, her narcissism, her diseases, and there he chose to live the life of the Broken. He did not turn away from the repulsiveness that is often fallen humanity. Indeed, he jumped in with both feet. This was his condition, all the way up until his death, where his last breath was the breath of a criminal, naked and exposed, hanging between his fellow delinquents.

Emmanuel means that God is with us, not God is with us if we could only fix ourselves first. Emmanuel means that God is with us now, in the gutters, in our pain, in our failures, in our weakness and addictions, in our blind spots. God isn’t with us in only the clean, acceptable parts of our world and only in the clean acceptable parts of ourselves. He’s in the dirt. He’s in the loathsome and the humiliating. Emmanuel is with the broken, almost exclusively. If this is the inaugural platform from where we begin our journey with him, then we should abandon the fear of ever falling back down on it. Christ met us in our filth. We should not be intimidated when that filth continues to take potshots at us along the way. A petty, tyrannical God is angry at us because of our brokenness. Jesus jumped squarely into that brokenness with us. That’s where he first found us, loved us, and indeed died for us.

If it is the meek who inherit the earth, maybe it’s ok to be meek. If the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the poor in spirit, maybe it’s ok to be poor in spirit. Maybe it’s ok to be quiet. Maybe it’s ok to take a backseat. Perhaps its ok to be broken. Our brokenness should not scare us. Our brokenness should not be something to hide or to make us feel like spiritual Less-Thans. Perhaps we should take solace that the ultimate portrait of victory in our world is an impoverished, marginalized, bloody and bruised man on a cross. If the cross is both wretched and beautiful at the same time, perhaps we are too. Perhaps we should not fear the beautiful nor the wretched within us. Perhaps we should not fear our helplessness and confusion. Perhaps we should not fear when we are broken people. Perhaps we should fear when we are not.

[2] Toplady, Augustus, Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me, 1776 Hymnal

[3] Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, pg. 479

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