March 9, 2008
"The Good, The Bad and The Ugly"
Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn
There's an old story about three men who were friends. They attended college together. And even went to grad schools in the same town. One became a Lawyer, one became a Tax Accountant and the other became a Preacher. The Lawyer and the Accountant were members of the Preachers church.
Over the years, they maintained their close friendship. One of the things that held them together was mutual respect and their sense of humor. The Preacher particularly liked calling his friends the Pharisee and the Money Changer. They in turn said he had a Messiah complex.
As the years went by, old age began to take its toll. Eventually the Preacher lay in bed dying. He summoned his two friends and asked them to stand on either side of his bed to see him off. When asked why he said, "All my life I've tried to live like Jesus. And now I want to die like Jesus, between two thieves."
This morning we're going to look at Jesus and the two thieves. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The passage which tells this story is found in Luke 23:32-46 (NRSV).
 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.
 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.
 Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing.
 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!"
 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine,
 and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!"
 There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."
 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? 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 have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong."
 Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
 He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon,
 while the sun's light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.
 Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." Having said this, he breathed his last.
I've thought about using this title for a long time because the story of the two thieves has always fascinated me. And I want to look at them in the context of the movie title "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" If you remember, that was a 1967 spaghetti western starring Clint Eastwood. It was actually the third movie in a western trilogy by Italian director Sergio Leone. The first two were "A Fistful of Dollars" and "For A Few Dollars More." (By the way, you can get all three of these movies and "Hang 'Em High at Wally World for about $20)
The movie is set during the Civil War and basically it's the adventures of three dirtbags in search of $200,000 in Confederate gold, buried somewhere. It's all about their conniving and double crossing and hunting down each other. Two of the characters might actually be redeemable but the third is so Bad, there's no chance for redemption for him. So you can see why I think it fits this passage.
So, let's look at each of those, "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly." As we put them into Biblical perspective, the Good of course is Jesus. I'm not comparing the Clint Eastwood character to Jesus, just using the title. The Bad is the Unrepentant Thief and the Ugly is the Repentant Thief.
Like I said, these two guys fascinate me. How did they get there? They both knew that this was the final slap in the face from the authorities for Jesus, to be crucified with common criminals. But how did they get there. We don't know.
There have been all kinds of legends about the Repentant Thief. One says he was raised by a band of thieves when he was a boy and he didn't agree with his father's plan to rob and murder a family they had seen which happened to be the Holy Family who was fleeing to Egypt. The Repentant Thief is supposed to be the one who warned them to leave, thus saving Jesus' life. And because of that act, there was a spot reserved for him that day. But that's just legend. We don't know.
But we DO know that one of the Good parts of this story is that even there on the cross, God's redemptive plan for the world was at work in Jesus. The Ugly encountered the Good; the Repentant Thief encountered the Son of God and it touched something in his heart. It broke the lock and cast off the chains of whatever past had controlled him. And the light of Christ entered into the dark cavern of his sin filled soul bringing mercy, grace and forgiveness.
And when we look at Jesus' treatment of the Repentant Thief, it gives all of us hope. It reminds us that it's never too late. We shouldn't put it off, but it's never too late to give your life to Christ as the Repentant Thief did that day.
I don't remember who wrote it but it has stuck with me. One thief on the cross was saved, so that no one should ever despair; but only one, so that none of us should ever presume. But the Good News is, it's not too late. God still has a place for you. God still loves you even if you are as unlovable as the Repentant Thief.
God's plan for each of us is salvation, not separation. And the Good Thief or Repentant Thief reminds of that. That's the Good Part.
But then there's the Bad Part, the Unrepentant Thief. All he could do was join in with the mob mocking Jesus. He was suffering the same humiliation, the same pain and suffering yet his heart was so hardened and his angry fists were so tightly wrapped around it that not even the light of Christ could penetrate. Had he removed those angry fists, I'm sure the story might have been different.
There's a scene in the movie that I think shows just how hardened the Unrepentant Thief truly was.
It's actually about the Good and the Ugly characters. In the movie, Tuco, the Ugly, has subjected Clint Eastwood, the Good, to a grueling journey through the desert without water or rest. It's at the end of this journey, when Eastwood is near death that they encounter a run away coach from the Confederate Army. Tuco leaves Eastwood for dead, stops the coach and begins rifling through the pockets of the dead. That's when he encounters one of the men, Bill Carson, a man with a patch over one eye, who is barely alive. But he's the one who tells Tuco the cemetery where the gold is buried. Trying to find out which grave, Tuco goes for water for the dying man, hoping he will last long enough to tell which grave.
When Tuco turns around, he discovers Eastwood with Bill Carson and discovers that Eastwood has been told which grave. So, suddenly they are partners. And to get through the Confederate lines, Tuco dons the eye patch and the persona of Bill Carson. Now Tuco has to get Eastwood well.
He takes him to a Mission and asks the Priests to help heal him. He tells them he's like a brother to him. He's sees a painting outside the door of Eastwood's room and kneels to pray. But as soon as the door opens his only concern is the money. The Priest tells him Eastwood will make it. Tuco praises God and thanks the priest. But as the priest leaves, you see Tuco standing in front of a picture of the crucifixion grinning a greedy evil grin. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small whiskey bottle and without regard to his surroundings or even the message of the painting behind him, begins chugging it down in celebration.
It's a scene that I think describes the fallenness and the hardness of the Unrepentant Thief. It's a scene which describes how despicable his life and his attitude toward anyone but himself has become. He's even shut out and disrespected God, putting on a fake show of faith for his own ends.
Whatever hope there was in his life dried up years ago. The winds of despair have swept even the dust of that hope away. The Bad news for him is that it was all his choice. Remember what Jesus said as they were crucifying Him? "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."
The Unrepentant Thief was included in that prayer. Everyone was included in that prayer. But the Unrepentant Thief chose not to hear the invitation and the release offered in those words. He chose to refuse the invitation and cut himself off from the hope Jesus brought and offered even from the cross while He was dying.
The Bad News for us is that it's still up to us. It's still our choice. That's the Bad Part.
That brings us to the Ugly Part. The ugly truth is, there's a bit of both the thieves that lives within each of us, no matter how old we are or how close a walk we have with Christ, we each have unrepentant parts of our lives that we can't give up.
In an old Peanuts comic Linus is looking at his hands and says, "These are magnificent hands! These are hands that may create incredible works of art. These are hands that may one day shape the course of history. These are hands that may one day hold the future of the world!"
Lucy, the inevitable spoilsport walks over, looks at his hands, and says, "They've got jelly on them."
The truth is my hands have jelly on them, too. Don't yours? That's the Ugly Part. There's an event that took place in our life over 35 years ago. I think I've finally forgiven the person. My reaction was noble by some standards, but probably not the best action by Christian standards. I probably should be repentant for those actions but to be honest with you, I'm not. There's a part of me that is still proud of what I did, even though today I would probably handle the situation a whole lot differently.
I'm not bragging because there's also a part of me that says I should repent of that attitude and the action and the pain I caused that other person. That's the Ugly part because it puts me in turmoil. On that particular issue, I'm still not sure, I'm still struggling.
We all have jelly on our hands. We all have those issues. We all have those things we can't let go of. We're a mixture of the Repentant Thief and the Unrepentant Thief. There are things and attitudes that we willingly, thankfully, like the Repentant thief, give over to Christ. But we also know that we have those things that we can't give up, like the Unrepentant Thief.
We wrap our fists tightly around those sins and won't let go. We hang on to this world and continue to wallow in the despair of our fallenness. That's our choice. And that's the Ugly Part.
The Good News is that God doesn't give up on us. God had been calling to both thieves crucified with Jesus their entire lives. From the moment they were conceived God had been whispering to and singing of God's love for them. The Unrepentant Thief never heard, never acknowledged even hearing God's whisper or God's song. He shut himself off from everything but himself. There was no room in his heart for God or for Jesus.
The Repentant Thief finally heard and acknowledged God's love and gave God his heart so Jesus could take up residence. There on the cross he threw open the doors of his heart and invited Jesus in.
In December 1997, a young man in West Paducah, Kentucky, took a gun to school and killed seven of his classmates. Parents came from all over the community were frantically praying what every other parent was praying: "Not my child. Please don't let anything happen to my child."
Timothy J. Kennedy tells the story of one mother whose prayer wasn't answered that day. Her son died in the shooting. In spite of her shock and grief, the mother didn't hesitate when doctors asked if she would donate her son's organs to someone else in critical need.
Many months passed and the mother discovered her son's heart had gone to a Methodist preacher. She contacted him and asked to meet. The day of their meeting, the grieving mother and the grateful pastor talked and prayed and celebrated the life of the precious son who died. And then the mother asked one last question: "Can I put my ear to your heart? Can I hear my son's heart beating, one more time?" (1)
The Good Part, Jesus; and even the Bad Part, the Repentant Thief, remind us that when God wants to hear His Son's heart beat, God bends down and puts His ear to our chest.
Jesus died so we can live unencumbered by the weight of our sin. God wants to give each of us a new heart, one filled with His Son, Jesus. God wants us to get rid of the spiritual Ugliness in our lives. Some of us, like me, still have some work to do to give everything to God. We've brought some of the junk from the old heart with us.
But the Good News is God loves us and helps us work on it at our own pace. God would and will take it all in a split second if we will just let it go. When God bends down to listen to hear His Sons heartbeat in our chest, what God most desires to hear from Jesus about us is: "It's all good."
We're called to become more and more like Christ, that's Good, not Bad or Ugly but Good. So reach out your hand and open your heart like the Repentant Thief and invite Jesus in.
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