Not everyone I visit, on my day job as a hospice chaplain, wants to talk about their death. Of those, most politely say that they don’t want to talk about it. Though I did have one patient who absolutely denied he was dying, even though he was on hospice. Talking about a DNR, Do Not Resuscitate, was out of the question. Even when I suggested he look at an Advanced Directive, he said, “Are you trying to kill me?” Some people will not confront the fact that we all die.
I, for one, want to die in my sleep. Most people I talk to wish for that very thing. Actually in most cases the way the body typically declines before death, most hospice patients do die in their sleep.
On Ash Wednesday, we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. In the burial office in the prayer book we read, “We return to dust and yet we make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”
I do get questions and discussions about God’s role in dying. In hospice, we get people who die slowly. Our role is to make sure that their last days are in comfort and free of pain. Since these people are slowly dying, some wonder why God would allow such a thing. Then there are others who recognize that we don’t get to choose how we die and do so with grace and dignity.
Some people want to blame somebody, anybody, for their predicaments. I hear many times, “Why does God allow suffering? Why does God let babies die?” When a patient asks me that, I bite my tongue and do not tell them what I think. In a pastoral setting, especially where one is dying, it doesn’t seem to be the time or place for a theological discussion – for most people. For some, they want a serious discussion and I am happy to oblige.
You see for most people that ask why God does or does not allow something, they have a simplistic view of God. This is a God who is like Santa Claus who will give us whatever we ask or is a puppet master who makes all our decisions for us and makes sure that a rock will magically be moved before we stub our toe on it. Why does God allow us to stub our toes?
God has a master plan for us. It is called Eden in Genesis. We failed to obey God in Eden and were expelled. We can get back. We simply need to decide that we will not harm anyone and we will live in peace and love. Sounds simple. We just can’t seem to pull it off.
A small part of the Passion gospel might add perspective. I want to focus on one little part of the passion story. This little part is only found in Luke’s gospel.
Crucifixion is an extremely painful way to die. That’s likely the main reason the Romans did it. A crucifixion victim dies of asphyxiation. Their lungs collapse. Even if they had things like morphine, lorazepam, and other drugs, the Romans would never give them.
On the day of Jesus’ trial, we remember three people hanging on crosses, Jesus and two unnamed criminals. The first criminal believed that God or Jesus can simply wave a finger and all three of them would be back down on the ground. Why would God allow such suffering as this?
The second criminal had a broader perspective. “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?” The second criminal has the same viewpoint as Job. “I’m in a terrible mess, but I will remain faithful to God.” The second criminal takes personal responsibility. Instead of asking Jesus to end his suffering, the second criminal asks, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
The second criminal accepts that his death is near. Instead of being saved from the cross, he asks to be with Jesus. The second criminal knows that death is not final. The second criminal seems to intuit that Jesus will not save himself from the cross. Jesus will endure the same suffering. Jesus will endure death.
And so Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” There is another word for paradise, Eden. They died that day. And after death there is a return to Eden.
Jesus did not tell the first criminal where he will be after he dies. Maybe he did but Luke failed to mention it. I suspect that if Jesus made the offer to the first criminal, that one would just throw it back in Jesus’ face. The first criminal wanted someone else to fix his own mistakes.
Jesus describes, usually in parables, the kingdom of God. Jesus is describing Eden. Jesus is also trying to tell people that it is up to us to remake the world into Eden. Hate, violence, wanting our own way to the exclusion of others is not Eden. We all have a part in seeing that that happens. What can you do?
Text: Luke 23:1–49