39 • One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him,
saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!"
40 • But the other rebuked him,
• saying, "Do you not fear God,
since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?"
Since the action of one of the hanged-with-Jesus criminals was absolutely typical, justifying himself by joining in with the general condemnation of the Über-criminal in the centre, the reaction of the other was even more surprising. Not only did the the one rebuke the other, abandoning his own abuse of Jesus as he did so, he rebuked him with amazing insight into the plight that he and his erstwhile companion were in.
What insight was needed to see that they were in a dreadful plight? None at all to see that their condition was hopeless as far as man was concerned. As far as Jesus being a man, being a king, even being a 'messiah' was concerned, there was nothing that he could do to repay any insult that should be added to the clamour and the pain. As far as judgement was concerned what could any one do to increase the railing criminal's punishment? Why, the guard detail and the noterati in the crowd were mocking the one on the centre cross, perhaps if he joined his voice with theirs his suffering would even be reduced. He called to Christ to save him but without the least vestige of trust that he could do so.
Then came a voice rebuking him from the further side of the cross. Two criminals were crucified with Christ in order to provide the spectacle with the right degree of theatricality but now there is a realization born in one of the two that brings the drama of the cross up to crisis and to the central dialogue of the soul's existence. The realization that they two were least able of all there to take the judge's place, them being so far under condemnation as to actually be in God's hands, now, and he is to be feared, even when man has done his worst already.