One of the criminals who were hanged railed at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.” And He said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23: 39-43).
Icons of the confession of the thief on the Cross are found in many churches; it is a key theme in our Holy Week services: “The wise thief You made worthy, in single moment O Lord. By the wood of the Cross, illumine me as well and save me” (Exapostilarion, Holy Friday Matins).
Notice that the thief did not question the method of his punishment, nor did Christ challenge his punishment and say it was unjust or unfair. The thief acknowledges that he deserves what he has coming to him. But then he has the audacity to ask the Lord to remember him when He comes into His Kingdom. The Lord says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” And in this single moment — an eternal moment — this man found life not death. In this single moment — an eternal moment — Christ overturned the death penalty of the thief on the Cross. In light of the Good News of our Lord’s Death on the Cross and His Resurrection, can one say there is no need for the death penalty? As the Gospel begins to transform a culture, would the sentence of death be overturned and of no effect?
Up until the fifth century, it is my opinion that this is how things may have been understood in the Church. But the Church and its relationship with the State changed around this time. The age of Byzantium came to be; the age of cooperation, of “symphonia” between the two. Governments did sentence people to death, and still do today.
Some states in our country have made the death penalty illegal. The 1989, the All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America, meeting in St. Louis, adopted a resolution calling for an end to the death penalty. It does seem reasonable to me that for murder, a life sentence without parole is an adequate replacement for the death penalty. Does not this offer the opportunity for someone to repent and come to Christ?
This has been a very poor attempt to discuss a difficult issue. I only hope that some of the thoughts I have shared with you will further encourage you to learn more and will impact positively your efforts to address sanctity of life issues with your children.
I think it is now time to end this line of reflections on the sanctity of life. In the weeks to come I will write more about more day-to-day family issues on the theme of family as a little icon of the Church.
The blessing of the Lord be upon you,