Column: Luke’s Gospel is a study in contrasts

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Shopping malls and city streets are now awash in Christmas decorations. The colors red and green predominate.

Why those particular colors? The green provides a significant color that is too often missing from the winter landscape.

And why red? Some say the red is the color of the berries on holly bushes. But that begs the question. More likely, it is because red contrasts so strongly with green. The two colors stand out more vividly when placed side by side.

That also holds true for personalities. When opposite personalities are viewed side by side, they stand out more clearly. Luke’s Gospel makes use of this approach to great effect. His Gospel will often present us with a pair of contrasting figures in order to make a point. It will hold up one as an example to imitate, the other as an example to avoid. For example, Jesus visits the two sisters, Martha and Mary. He praises Mary for her willingness to listen to his teachings, while he chides Martha for being overly busy (Lk 10: 38-42).

A similar pattern appears in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man is condemned for his selfishness and neglect of the poor, while Lazarus serves as an example of someone who is poor and downtrodden (Lk 16: 19-31). The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector also shows us two contrasting figures. The tax collector stands out as a model of humility, while the Pharisee is arrogant and full of himself (Lk 18: 9-14).

Significantly, these pairs of contrasting figures that I have mentioned are found only in Luke’s Gospel. They are a distinctive characteristic of that Gospel, as compared to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John.

Sunday’s Gospel once again presents us with a pair of contrasting figures, two criminals crucified with Jesus (Lk 23: 35-43). It is true that all four Gospels describe Jesus as crucified with a criminal on either side. But only Luke’s Gospel contrasts the two.

In Luke’s Gospel, one criminal mocks Jesus: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” The other criminal scolds the first criminal for his disrespect and recognizes Jesus as Lord: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

These two criminals in Luke’s rendering of the scene are often called the good thief and the bad thief. Through subsequent tradition, the good thief has even acquired a name: St. Dismas. He has become the patron saint of criminals.

Luke’s Gospel holds the good thief as an example for us to imitate. Like him, we are to admit our culpability. Even if we have not been convicted of a crime, we all have sinned. We are to recognize Jesus’ ability to save us.

We are also to acknowledge Jesus as king, as does the good thief when he refers to Jesus entering into his kingdom. (Of course, that is the tie-in to the feast of Christ the King which we celebrate this Sunday.)

That approach contrasts with that of the bad thief, who joins with the rulers in mocking Jesus. The prospect of impending death has made him bitter. He takes his anger out on Jesus. His choice is the opposite of the good thief’s. And that enables us to see it more distinctly. If Jesus Christ is the ideal king, then the good thief is the ideal subject of his kingdom.

Father Stubbs is the pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish, Lansing.

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