While hanging on the cross inching ever closer to death, Jesus could have been selfish and thought only about his predicament. His togue swollen, cracked, dry and parched because of dehydration, Jesus could have been selfish. He was slowly bleeding to death from the open wounds on his body from the previous day’s severe flogging, therefore Jesus could have been selfish. Compensating for his slow and tormenting death from asphyxiation, again, Jesus could have been selfish. Every inch of his body was screaming in agonizing pain from the slow and cruel torture of crucifixion and yes Jesus could have been selfish and thought only of himself… but he was not selfish and he was not thinking of himself. No! Jesus turned his head to the side of the dying thief, and heard him say, “ we are condemned justly and this man has done nothing criminal. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. During this quandary, no one could have blame Jesus for being selfish and ignoring the thief speaking to him. However, instead of being self-centered to his own dismal situation, Jesus replied and said to the good thief, “ today you will be with me in paradise”.
Early during the year and before the crucifixion the Pharisees and Scribes were once again upset that Jesus was among sinners saying, “this man is with tax collectors and he welcomes sinners. He eats with them”. Jesus knowing their hardened hearts spoke to them about the parable of the lost sheep hoping to win them over. “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it. And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy, and upon his arrival home calls friends and neighbors and says rejoice with me I have found my lost sheep. I tell you in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.” (Luke 15:1-7)
In this story, the lost sheep is man and the good shepherd is Jesus. Man is weak, powerless, and vulnerable without its shepherd (Jesus) to provide, guide and protect them. No matter how desperate and dangerous the situation is to himself, Jesus will take the dangerous risk and will never rest even if only one sheep (soul) is lost. He will always be searching for that lost soul (sheep) asking to be remember in your kingdom today. A good analogy is from Father John Bartunek on his book The Better Part: “A shepherd counts his sheep after a long day of grazing, as the sun goes down. One is missing. Yes he counts again. One sheep has wandered away from the flock. High on the mountainside pasture, the air is getting cold as daylight fades. The flock huddles together. The shepherd leads them into a natural hollow under an overhanging cliff. He turns around and retraces his steps; he sets out to find the lost sheep. He stumbles over sharp rocks in the lengthening shadows. He has to climb off the path, pushing through brambles and thorns. He pulls his cloak tighter around him to keep out the chill. It starts to drizzle. Will the wolves come out in the rain? There is no moon tonight and the clouds block out the stars. Maybe he should turn back while he can still find his way. He will come and search for the lost sheep in the morning. A wolf howls. The morning may be too late. He trudges on. The mud is slippery. The wind picks up. Water drips down the back of his neck. Soon he is soaked to the skin. The night crawls on. He will find the sheep. That’s what matter for he is a good shepherd”.
Yes! Jesus, with his heart so full of love is still searching for that lost soul even while his own situation is ghastly as he is suffering and dying a shameful criminal death. He is more concern about saving the good thief soul rather than the pain and suffering he is experiencing. Jesus, saving this soul, validates his reason for being on the cross. This is how much He loves us! In Luke 15:7 (I tell you in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance) does this implies heaven will rejoice for all sinners? What about murders, rapists, pedophiles and the like that so many believe they are the scum of the earth? Are they to the sinners Jesus will rejoice about? Yes, for they too are his children and he too wants to redeem them. Nonetheless, there is a catch! Sinners do not automatically get a free pass to heaven. They must be penitent sinners just like the good thief on the cross.
In the book the “Dolorous Passion” by Blessed Anne Catherine (a mystic with many God-giving gifts) God showed her His passion over and over. She recalls in her vision that the good thief was being condemned for murder. After all he witnessed during his last few hours on earth, he concluded that Jesus was not a criminal but rather the true Messiah and that he and his companion were justly condemn to death for their action. With a heart full of remorse, the good thief confess his sins and asked to be remembered. On the contrary, his companion in crime is filled with sin and only cares for himself as he angrily yells at Jesus “are you not the messiah? Save yourself and us.” He was not saying save my soul but rather save my earthly life and get me off this cross! Hanging from the cross, the good shepherd continues to search for two lost sheep so that heaven could rejoice. Sadly, only one lost sheep (the good thief) was found that afternoon. The other sheep (the bad thief).. remained lost.
In 1993, Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun of Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille in New Orleans, Louisiana, published her book “Dead Man Walking”. This book is a true story regarding the brutal 1977 rape and murder of eighteen year old Loretta Ann Bourque and the murder of her seventeen year old boyfriend David Leblanc, by Elmo Patrick Sonnier and his younger brother Robert Lee Willie. Elmo was sentence to death for this crime and because his brother was a minor, he was sentence to life in prison. In 1982, Sister Prejean began visiting Elmo and eventually became his spiritual advisor up until the time of his execution. Sister was permitted to visit with Sonnier during his final hours and to witness his execution. In addition to Sister Prejean, two other men were permitted to witness Elmo Sonnier’s death by the electric chair. They were Godfrey Bourque and Lloyd LeBlanc, the fathers of Loretta Bourque and David LeBlanc. “Just before the electric switch was pulled, Elmo Sonnier directed his final statement to Lloyd LeBlanc, saying “I can understand the way you feel. I have no hatred in my heart. As I leave this world, I ask God to forgive…me for what I did. I also ask your forgiveness for what I did. LeBlanc nodded, and then Bourque remarked quietly He did not ask me for forgiveness. Elmo Sonnier was strapped in what was known as Gruesome Gertie, the state’s oak electric chair. After electrical currents were administered, Elmo Patrick Sonnier was pronounced dead at 12:15 am, April 5, 1984.
Dead Man Walking made Sister Prejean an instant world-wide celebrity advocate against capital punishment. She received much praise and adoration for her work, but she also received a lot of criticism and backlash. Many people were outrage that she would take the time to be the spiritual advisor for a man who committed such a heinous crimes. Polls at that time showed 85% of Louisiana voting citizens supported capital punishment. I too was one of her many critics and I too supported capital punishment. For the life of me I could not understand what would make her want to visit a death row inmate. Elmo committed the crime now it was time to pay the ultimate price. Why was she wasting her time with such a scum and low life? What about the victims? Did she care about the victims? Did she visit the victim family?
Many years passed by since I first heard about Sister Prejean. From time to time, Sister would make the national news for her advocacy against capital punishment and during those times my views always remain the same-“Fry them”! Years later, things changed for me when I had my own spiritual downfall. To rise out of the abyss, I began reading over and over the Dolorous Passion. Concentrating on Jesus’s last few minutes on earth, I prayed and prayed for much deeper meanings. Eventually, I connected the parable of the lost sheep with the confession of the good thief: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. I can only imagine how Jesus’s struggling heart must have leaped for joy upon hearing that confession as he replied, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise”.
Twenty eight-eight years after I first read Dead Man Walking, I finally put the puzzle together. Like Jesus, Sister Prejean went out to look for a lost sheep. I did read in an online article that right before Elmo Sonnier felt the power of electricity that would take his life, Sister Prejean told him to look at her face, that her face will be the face of Christ. Sister was not about saving Elmo’s life but rather his soul. Elmo Sonnier did not get a pass. He was executed for his crime and at that very moment she was trying to say to him, today you will be with me in paradise.
So, did Sister also meet with the families? Yes she did! It did not go well. I found an on line article from Christina Janney (dated September 18, 2013) telling the story when Sister Prejean met with the family of the victims. Here is some of the article. “I was so chilled by the enormity of the evil of killing two innocent kids. I am the spiritual adviser to the two people who did this? And then I thought of the parents. Prejean was reluctant to contact the victims’ families. She thought they could not possibly want to hear from the woman who was the spiritual adviser to the man that killed their children. She did meet the families of the victims at the pardon board hearing one week before Sonnier was executed. She met the families in the hall, and Bourque family averted their gazes and walked right by Prejean. David LeBlanc’s father, Lloyd, stopped Prejean in the hall. “We lost our boy David,” Lloyd LeBlanc said to Prejean. “Sister, all this time you have been visiting those two brothers, and you don’t once come and see us. Sister, you don’t understand the pressure we are under with this death penalty thing”. Prejean agreed to drive to LeBlanc’s church and pray with him during his regular prayer time at 4 a.m. LeBlanc was originally very anger at the Sonniers, but he is a kind mind, Prejean said. He said he was losing that kindness to his bitterness and hatred. “They killed our son, but I am not going to let them kill me,” LeBlanc said. “I am going do what Jesus said. “The pressure on the LeBlancs to support the death penalty was immense. “Sister, when I said pressure on us about the death penalty. Everybody was saying to us, “You have to be for the death penalty or its going to look like you didn’t love your boy. You had the ultimate loss. Look at the suffering of your wife, and look at Vickie, your daughter. Look at what has happened to your family, and you’re not going to ask for the ultimate penalty?” Sister Prejean was not in any way trying to exonerate the killers. On the contrary! She was trying to get them to admit their guilt, atone for their sins and ask the family and God for forgiveness. Accordingly to her, she did obtain her goals. I now believe that Sister Prejean was trying to follow Jesus’s parable and be the good shepherd looking for a lost sheep.
I now find great comfort to the parable of the good shepherd. I often tell people that when they are struggling with a life decision and feel lost, read Luke 15. I cannot tell you how many times in my own struggles over the many years how often I turned to that passage. And when I do read it, it always brings me attention back to the conversation of Jesus with the good thief and how heaven rejoiced to the adding of a new saint. In this present chaotic world with so much violence and hatred going on in the streets, let us remember and try not to be like the Pharisees and Scribes, so judgmental. Keep in mind that if you are judging others, only God knows the heart of a man. We are all sinners.
Today while I write this blog, I am reminded of a poem I learned back in high school. I do not recall the author. “I don’t have yesterday, time took it away. Tomorrow may not be, but I have today.” I do not know if I will be alive tomorrow, but each day I wake up I thank the Lord for giving me another day of life and I ask Him, that if today is the day I am call to give account of my earthly life, please remember me in your kingdom. I hope and pray that when that day comes, I too will hear Jesus say to me, “this day you too will be with me in paradise”. Then Jesus will put me on his shoulder and call out to all the saints in Heaven, “rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep”.