He has been called “the thief who stole Paradise.”
The good thief, as he has also been called, was one of the criminals crucified with Jesus. Since crucifixion was reserved for the worst offenders such as murders or terrorists, we know that he must have been more than just a simple thief. The gospels do not tell us his name, but the tradition has referred to him as Saint Dismas. He has been invoked to give hope to us that no matter what our sins may be, we can always turn to Jesus and expect to find mercy and forgiveness.
In Saint Matthew’s gospel, we are told that both criminals condemned with Jesus began mocking him along with the religious leaders and soldiers. However, something happened to the good thief. Something changed Saint Dismas? What could it have been?
We know that the good thief must have been a hardened criminal. During his infamous career, he would have known many other lawbreakers like himself. As he looked upon Jesus, he must have known that He was different. Unlike the felons Saint Dismas knew, Jesus did not curse, did not protest His innocence and did not show disdain or hate for those who condemned Him. The good thief must have known in his heart that Jesus was no criminal and did not deserve to be put to death.
The turning point for Saint Dismas must have been when, in the height of agony, Jesus cried out from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” An innocent man, put to death unjustly and subjected to the cruelest of tortures, forgives those who persecute Him. The good thief lived in a world that thrived on violence and revenge. Forgiveness was a concept He could not grasp. In his mind, it was for the weak and the powerless. But now He sees a man forgiving others out of love. Maybe Saint Dismas had never been shown love by those around him. Now he was seeing a divine love capable of embracing the worst of sinners - those who would put the Son of God to death.
Seeing Jesus willingness to forgive must have given the good thief great confidence. “If He can forgive His persecutors, then He can forgive me.” Summoning whatever strength was left in his crucified body, he turns to Jesus and cries out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he hears the words that all of us would also rejoice to hear, “...today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Jesus is a King who conquers hearts not through violence but through love. His strategy is to offer mercy and forgiveness rather than condemnation. Our Lord longs for us to love Him rather than fear Him. He wants us to run to Him rather than run from Him. He desires to comfort us rather than judge us. Now matter how great our sins may be, no matter how far we may have drifted from the path that God would have us walk, we can always come back to Jesus. We can always be forgiven. We can always change.
It is natural for us to be skeptical when we hear that prisoners have “found Jesus.” We cannot help but wonder whether their sudden conversion is just a ploy to get sympathy from judges and juries. However, the experience of the good thief may challenge us to reconsider our attitudes. Could it be that because murderers, thieves and sex offenders are rejected by society and held in scorn that they have no one else to turn to except God? Could it be that because their crimes are so savage and brutal that any notion that they could be forgiven melts their hearts? As Jesus tells us, “those who have been forgiven much, love much.”
Furthermore, if we claim that we are followers of Christ, if we want a share in His Kingdom, then do we not have to follow His example of forgiveness? If we want to spread His Kingdom, then will it not be by our willingness to extend a hand of friendship, comfort and support even to the worst of people?
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has given us so many wonderful images of this love of Jesus that goes out to sinners. One of the most beautiful was on Holy Thursday when he celebrated Mass at the Casa del Marmo youth penitentiary in Rome. With tender love and humility, he washed the feet of the young offenders offering them mercy as Jesus did to the good thief on the cross. A Vatican spokesperson commenting on the event told BBC news, “It is a gesture of humility and service....It teaches that liberation and new life are won not in presiding over multitudes from royal thrones...but by walking with the lowly and poor and serving them as a foot-washer along the journey.”
If we are to have a share in Jesus’ Kingdom, if we are to join Him one day in Paradise, we have to show the same love, forgiveness and mercy to everyone without exception.
Like the good thief, it begins with our acknowledging our sinfulness before the cross of Jesus. All of us have fallen short of the glory of God. None of us is the person God dreamed we could be when He created us. We allow our hearts to be hardened by bitterness, we allow our relationships to be corrupted by selfishness and we allow our choices to be determined by narrow self-interest. If we cannot recognize our own sinfulness, then we will be like the thief who mocks Jesus because he does not believe he deserves to be condemned. On the other hand, if we admit our need for forgiveness, then we will not be willing to offer it to others.
Jesus is a King who offers love and mercy to us, especially to the most hardened of sinners. The greater our sins are, the greater our right to turn to Him. It was for sinners that Christ came to the world and unless we go to Him as sinners we cannot expect to receive anything from Him. At the same time, He expects us to extend that mercy to everyone, especially to the greatest of sinners. Then His Kingdom will be a reality on earth and our hope for Paradise.