This piece is part of syndicated series in collaboration with Yale Logos for Lent 2021. You can read the original piece at https://www.yalelogos.com/home/two-thieves.
BY JOHN DAOUD
Lent calls us to improve and deepen our relationship with the Lord in many ways. One such way is through an examination of his Passion. I have recently been drawn to the beautiful Passion hymn, “The Song of the Two Thieves.” The hymn finds its root in the Indian Orthodox churches and is originally in Malayalam. Translations may be found here and here. And of course, hymns are not meant to be read but rather chanted. Here is a link to listen on Soundcloud and Youtube.
Rather than delving into the content of the hymn, I’d instead like to examine its form. The hymn imagines a dialogue between the two thieves crucified with Jesus, one on the right and the other on the left. The Gospel of St. Luke tells the story of these two thieves:
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:39-43, NRSV).
Tradition views the thief on the left as the voice deriding and doubting Christ and the thief on the right as the symbol of repentance. The hymn does the same. Generally, each stanza shifts between these two thieves, with the left thief posing questions and hurling insults while the right thief answers his questions and praises the Lord. The ritual setting emphasizes this dynamic, where two chanters, one on the right and the other on the left, stand in front of the congregation and sing the dialogue, bringing it to life. Naturally, the hymn is prayed on Good Friday. The church brings alive the scene of the crucifixion and calls the congregants to consider the remarkable gift which they have been given.
I leave you to read through the hymn and appreciate its beauty in detail, noting in particular the faithfulness of the right thief. For every doubt and claim of the thief on the left, the one on the right has a response, placing his faith and trust in Jesus—can I say the same? The right thief witnesses our Savior at a time of physical weakness, seeing him crucified, yet his faith is instantly strong. I have spent a lifetime in this faith, having seen the work of God in my life and the lives of those around me, but can I say the same? Is my faith so strong? And what about repentance? In one moment, the thief saw the Lord and repented, confessing his belief in Him. Am I so quick to repent? Or does my pride hold me back? Am I content to let my sinless redeemer die for sins I refuse to confess?
Now, the last stanza of the hymn is unique because here both chanters (and sometimes the entire church, I’m given to understand) sing together. It reads. “Eden, Thy word granted to/ That thief who confessed Thee, Lord/ Remember us, Lord, that Day/ When you come, we confess Thee.” This reminds us of the words of the Lord himself, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). This is our reminder to follow the example of the right thief, to put aside our pride, and to confess our faith in Christ. Just as the chanters pray this together, ending the dialogue in this prayer, we must be ready to reconcile the doubt within ourselves and do the same, so that we may also confess Him. Otherwise, we must ask ourselves, which thief am I?
John is a Senior at Yale studying Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.