(Died c. A.D. 33)
One of the most touching episodes that took place on Calvary was the appeal for mercy uttered by one of the two thieves crucified with Jesus, and Our Savior’s promise of mercy. You will recall the conversation that Luke’s Gospel records. Christ’s enemies were yelling taunts and accusations at the “King of the Jews.” Even one of the two criminals being executed with Him joined in the chorus of blasphemy.
Surprisingly enough, the other criminal dared to speak well rather than badly of Jesus. The unexpectedness of his remarks was no doubt the reason why they have been so carefully preserved. He rebuked the sneers of the other thief. “Have you no fear of God, seeing you are under the same sentence?” “We deserve it, after all,” he continued. “We are only paying the price for what we’ve done, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
Oh, if we could only read the mind of the “good thief” at this moment! At least we can conjecture his train of thought. “He has done nothing wrong – we have; and are paying for our misdeeds.”
Whether his awareness of the goodness of Jesus had been longstanding, or whether it had been revealed to him in a moment of grace, we cannot say. Nevertheless, he now saw the contrast between the wonderful life of Christ and his own wretched career. This perception brought remorse; with remorse, came grief; with grief, the supernatural conviction that Jesus could forgive him.
Might the sinner have been himself a Galilean? Might he even have chanced to listen to Christ one day as He preached in Galilee? Perhaps he had heard Him say, “I give you my word: every sin will be forgiven mankind and all the blasphemies men utter.” (Mark, 3:28). Of course, the thief would have been scornful then, but never quite forgotten.
More likely, though, in his own last hour, there came back to mind words of the psalm that he had once known by heart, but long since (as he thought) dismissed. “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice. For with the Lord is kindness … and He will redeem Israel from all their iniquities.” (Ps. 130).
At all events, the condemned criminal entered into conversation with Jesus, first indirectly, by rebuking his fellow criminal; then, directly by asking with shy humility, “Jesus, remember me when you enter upon your reign.”
And Christ answered him, recognizing the thief’s true faith, “I assure you, this day you will be with me in paradise.” (Lk 23, 43). It was the last great moral miracle of the Savior’s public life. He had snatched this brand from the fire just as it was about to be consumed.
That promise was not a canonization. The “paradise” where Jesus said He would shortly meet the repentant thief was what others would call the “Limbo of the Fathers.” It was the place (or, rather, state) in which those who had died believing in the coming Messiah were waiting for the good news of the redemption, which alone would give them entree to heaven. Jesus Himself had also referred to it as the “bosom of Abraham.” And true to His promise to this last of the holy people of the Old Testament, Our Lord, upon His own death, “descended into this hell (= Limbo) that we speak of in the Apostles’ Creed. As St. Peter would write, “It was in the spirit also that He (Jesus) went to preach to the spirits in prison.” (Pet. 3:20).
Pious Christian imagination has long since attempted to fill out with fiction the details of this stirring eleventh-hour conversion. Some writers gave the thieves the names of Zoathan and Chammatha; although the name Gestas for the impenitent thief and Dismas for the repentant one became the most widely accepted. It is under the name “St. Dismas” that the Good Thief is assigned a feast on March 25, the supposed date of Christ’s death.
There is no need to stoop to fiction in telling Dismas’ story. St. Luke gives us more than enough to convey the message. He is repeating, in essence, the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as wool.” (Is.1:18).
–Father Robert F. McNamara