In Canto 25 we find the “Noble Thieves” stealing one another’s bodies. As Ciardi notes, in life these thieves were greedy to possess what belonged to others, but now they do not even possess their own body and must steal from one another to have even that.
Though not the lowest of the low, in Dante’s view, those who steal from the substance of others are inhuman. By their choices in life, these “noble” thieves have become not only ignoble; they have become inhuman. They have become beasts [cf. line 133].
In life they sought to shore up their own lives and their own situation not only through legal avarice and greed but by illegally violating the rights and possessions of others. And this was all done only to fulfill their hunger for possession. Their appetites combined with their choice to steal place their souls deep within Hell.
And so a fitting punishment to match their sins is to have everything stripped from them, even their human form. However not even this encourages change in their behavior. They spend eternity attempting to regain their human form by stealing it back from others. And when they are successful in this, their newly acquired human form is stolen from them. They can never be assured of holding on to it for any length of time. They are doomed to an existence of perpetual instability in the possession of what they covet the most.
All of this leads me to think of Jesus’ discussion of the cross and the costs of discipleship in Matthew 16. “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life?” (Mt 16:24-26)
Indeed the thieves have found that in gaining the whole world (or at least in attempting to) they have forfeited their eternal souls. It appears as well that they have forfeited their bodies! But most tragically, they have forfeited their relationship with God.
I think here not only of the self-denial required of a disciple of Jesus but also the kenotic self-gift of Jesus himself we learn about in the second chapter of St. Paul’s epistle to the Philippians.
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. (Phil 2:6-8)
Jesus emptied himself of all wealth and possessions, political position and social standing—and even of his own human will, taking the form of an obedient slave. In this transformation of Jesus, we all find salvation. The pattern is one of loss leading to security. The emptiness of self brings the fullness of life.
The merciful love of God as shown through the gift of his only Son is the antidote for our sins (cf. Jn 3:16). It is the medicinal salve for the greed, avarice and thieving that ails each of us. When we accept this merciful love and find our true identity in our relationship as a son or daughter of God, we find true security, safety and satisfaction. We do not find safety in possessing. We do not find safety in jostling against one another in a race towards the greater position or the better form. We find safety and freedom when, instead, there is nothing left to lose, when we have lost all for Christ. Indeed, it is then that we gain the whole world. Earthly acquisition is false, fleeting and ultimately death dealing to us in soul and body. The counter-intuitive demands of discipleship lead us to true wealth and possession.
Mrs. Colleen Trevisani is a lay minister and certified teacher, with experience teaching from Pre-K to college. She has ministered in the areas of liturgy, music, retreats, faith formation and youth ministry. She has an MDiv and an MEd in Inclusive Education. Currently the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry at St. Kateri in Irondequoit, NY, she lives with her husband and two small boys in Henrietta, NY.