The Age of Cynicism
Cynics believe in the worst of human nature and motives, and ultimately the futility of human existence. Bitter experiences and disappointments in life easily lead to a cynical spirit. The constant barrage of bad news in our day feeds it, as do everyday annoyances.
All of us are motivated by an admixture of selfishness and generosity. But cynics focus exclusively on selfish motives. They do not have much patience in “bearing with the faults of others.” They scorn others who do not measure up to their high standards. Cynics usually expect others to bear their own faults and errors in judgment with understanding and good cheer.
If the Devil had a capacity for love, he would love cynics. So he cultivates the selfish motives of his clients—crowding out a generous spirit—to feed the beast. Hence, among the first words a child learns after “Mama” is “Mine!” Cute, but without parental guidance (“Share!”), in time, this sprouts into selfishness.
The Devil’s threefold temptation of Jesus at the beginning of his public life was designed to cripple his ministry with selfishness. With riches and a comfortable life, teaching “Greater love than this no man has than to give up his life for his friends” would make Him a laughingstock. Selfishness and cynicism are two sides of the same symbiotic self-destructive coin.
During his Passion, we see Jesus surrounded by cynics: The conspiring chief priests; the mobs chanting, “Crucify him!”; the Roman centurions, languishing in the God-forsaken land of Israel, oblivious to human suffering. The crowds were willing to deny the entire history of Israel in their cynical hatred of Jesus. So they cried, “We have no king but Caesar!” Pilate summed up all the cynicism in the world in three words: “What is truth?”
Amidst all of the cynicism, the Church dares to proclaim that Jesus exercises his dominion from the Cross. But the Crucifixion provides us with a story of conversion to demonstrate the glory of his sovereignty.
The Good Thief, Dismas, was accustomed to living dangerously. Dismas knew that his time was short. He likely didn’t spend much time in jail after his arrest; the Romans were too efficient for that. But perhaps he was happy that everything in this wretched world was coming to an end. Yet the thought of crucifixion in the morning couldn’t have been particularly thrilling. Torture on the cross was a public spectacle to deter the rambunctious and added to the futility of opposition to Roman rule. Eventual death from exhaustion and asphyxiation was an unpleasant way to go.
After the soldiers lifted his cross on high, Dismas probably had a splendid view of Jerusalem. Of course, the people of Jerusalem had a good glimpse of him as well, if they could muster the nerve. He looked down on those rough centurions who fastened him to the wood. Over time, crucifixion duty must have brought a sense of bitter cynicism, and a lack of respect for human life. Their callousness was not unlike that of those who today abort unborn babies for a living.
Dismas saw the soldiers laughing and ridiculing human misery. “And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching; but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him vinegar, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’” (Luke 23:35-38)
For a moment, Dismas joined in the sneers with his partner in crime (cf. Mt. 27:44). But only for a moment. In his agony and cynicism, he saw the suffering of Innocence. He heard Jesus say: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) He saw the holy women weeping for Jesus. He saw the faithful Mother of Jesus, sorrowful, but not broken by her grief.
He heard the Suffering Servant in innocence praying the Psalms: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” But it was not a prayer of despair. It was a prayer of hope and deliverance and ultimate victory because the Psalm concludes:
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations. (Psalm 22)
Whatever he saw and heard, we know what Dismas concluded. Jesus is innocent in his suffering. He also knew that he and his partner in crime were not innocent:
“One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But [Dismas] 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.’” (Luke: 23:39-41)
With his dying gasps, the world-weary Dismas became an honest man, a just man, because of the Innocence of the Cross. With his cynicism shattered by his encounter with Innocence, and with renewed courage, he dares to beg: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42)
Nothing can be more consoling to a dying man than to hear the same words Saint Dismas heard in his final agony: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
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