The Good Thief: Thief No More!
Three groups of people mock Jesus on the cross. First, people passing by. They raise their voice and utter blasphemies against Jesus. They mock his claim to destroy the temple and then rebuild it in three days. They taunt him to save himself by coming down from the cross. But Jesus had taught that “whoever would save his life will lose it.” (Mk 8:35). These are individuals with no deep knowledge of religion; only great antipathy.
Next the chief priest and scribes jeered at Jesus. Their knowledge of religion is more extensive. But knowledge alone does not save. Even the devils in hell know who Christ is.
This second group is proud. They are unwilling to receive the gift God is offering them in Jesus. They judge themselves already saved. They have set the standard for truth. They are closed to a truth that is greater than any human mind. A Messiah who suffers. A Messiah who is God. They literally “turn their nose at” Jesus for saying he is the Messiah (Lk 23:35). They challenge him to come down from the cross so that they could believe in him. Theirs is the exact opposite challenge that Jesus gives his disciples. “Anyone who wishes to follow me must take up his cross…” (Mk 8:34).
Lastly, those crucified with Jesus revile him. Matthew calls them criminals (“
,” cf. Mt 27:44). Luke tells us that they are under the same sentence as Jesus himself (cf. Lk 23:40-41). These are not the ordinary, run of the mill criminals. These two men on either side of Jesus are rebels. They are freedom fighters who oppose Rome and now are paying the price.
The hostility to Jesus is complete. The casual passer-by, the professional religious and the criminals, all society is turned against him. Well could Jesus make his own the words of Psalm 27:7: “I am reviled by men and considered nothing by the people.”
The criminal to Jesus’ left repeats the insults of the others. He has no reason of his own to hate Jesus. But the venom of his own evil heart is found now on his accusing lips. He is the prototype of that individual who does not look into his own soul and face his sin, but instead lashes out at the innocent man and makes him a victim of his own self-loathing. This criminal does not even tremble before death and judgment before God. He has no faith.
But the criminal to the right confesses his own wrongdoing. He is justly condemned to death. He rebukes the other criminal for his insolence and hardheartedness. “This man has done nothing wrong” (Lk 23:41), he tells him. Only those who acknowledge their own sins can recognize innocence. Sometimes we hate in others what is wrong in ourselves.
In his suffering, Jesus is broken, but not defeated. He remains loving and even kind to his killers. The criminal witnesses Jesus’ prayer of absolution for the world, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing’ (Lk 23:34). True nobility cannot be disguised in suffering. Already on the face of the suffering Christ, the love of heaven shines forth.
Jesus has touched this criminal to the right deeply. So moved is he that he makes the most unexpected request of one crucified man to another. With unfeigned sincerity, he pleads: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42). This is the only time in any of the gospels that someone addresses Jesus directly without a title. The moment for formality is past.
“Remember me,” the man prays. He asks for mercy. Nothing more. He prays with the humility of the publican who did not dare raise his eyes when he prayed, “Be merciful to me, a sinner” (Lk 13:13). His prayer is short. His hope is deep. It is not the length of our prayers that gives them strength, but the intensity of our faith and confidence that make us bold enough to petition.
Jesus is more generous in his response than the criminal could ever have imagined. Jesus now speaks for the very last time to anyone in his life. “Amen, I say to you this day you shall be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43). Jesus assures him of salvation. He fulfills the mission he inaugurated in the synagogue of Nazareth when he announced his ministry of proclaiming release to captives and setting the oppressed free (cf. Lk 4:18-19). The criminal will join Jesus in paradise at the banquet with the poor, the lame and the crippled (cf. Lk 14:21).
Jesus had said, “If I be lifted up, I will draw all men to myself” (Jn 12:32). His prophecy is being fulfilled as the criminal to his right turns to him in faith. This criminal is literally suffering, dying and rising with Jesus. His deathbed conversion has turned him into a true disciple--someone who is with Jesus. The Crucified Jesus does not come down from the cross to save himself. He remains nailed to its wood to save us. His pierced body becomes the overflowing font of mercy to every sinner.
Gospel of Nicodemus
names the criminal who prays to Jesus on the cross as Dismas. Another apocryphal gospel relates his earlier years. According to that gospel, Dismas was the leader of a robber band in Egypt. When the Holy Family fled Herod the Great after Jesus' birth, they met up with him. He discerned something special about them and had his men spare them. Thirty years later he saw that child once again, nailed to a cross (cf. the sixth century
Arabic Infancy Gospel
). This is simply legend. But the offer of salvation from the Crucified Christ is not!
The entire gospel is found in this scene. Jesus is found in the company of sinners. Some accept him. Others do not. The dying man is the sinner, guilty of evil. He has harmed others by his life. He has offended God. Yet he does not hesitate to turn to Jesus on the cross and ask for what he does not deserve. Tradition affectionately baptizes this criminal “the good thief.” With his dying words, he stole heaven. But it is good to remember you cannot steal what is being freely given. The good thief is thief no more!