What Can We Learn From Thieves on Crosses?

Our suffering—our own private Lent—lasts only for a moment, but Easter lasts forever

Michelangelo Cerquozzi (1602-1660), “The Good Thief”
Michelangelo Cerquozzi (1602-1660), “The Good Thief” (photo: Public Domain)

Within Luke’s Gospel narrative of the Passion of Christ, a mere five verses contain the story of two men who hung to the left and right of Jesus. The verses tell a story of love and hate, of hope and despair, of tragedy and triumph. Though their names are not mentioned in any of the Gospels, the good thief is historically identified as Dismas, while the unrepentant thief is identified as Gestas. Saint Luke records each man speaking only one sentence to Jesus, but it was this sentence that defined each of them forever.

The Gospel reads:

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? 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 justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Jesus had cured lepers, given sight to the blind, given speech to the mute, cast demons out of the afflicted, brought the dead to life, and forgiven the sins of transgressors; yet, on this Friday afternoon He hangs on a cross, deserted by most of his friends. In place of his Apostles, dozens of mockers shout jeers from below. But the jeers come not only from below, but from His side, for Gestas chimes in to the chorus of mockery with a mock of his own: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

The great irony in Gestas asking to be saved was that Jesus had come to save him, but for Gestas, the notion of being saved was confined to the temporal world rather than the Heavenly world. Therein lies the tragedy. Gestas wanted to be saved on his own terms, rather than God’s. Not only does Gestas admit no wrongdoing or remorse, but his comments fail to suggest an interest in being truly saved. And his lack of repentance and lack of desire for eternal life is compounded by what happens next. For just a moment later, Jesus assures Dismas of eternal life; yet, petrified by pride, the bad thief remains unmoved, and turns a deaf ear to the tender voice of God.

The words of Dismas stand in perfect contrast to those of Gestas. Dismas admits grievous fault, but despite his sins, he has the faith in God and in His mercy to ask Jesus to remember him. Dismas’ hope was well-placed; for, in response, Jesus pronounces the most hopeful words ever uttered in history: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” It is commonly believed that Dismas died of the effects of crucifixion on Good Friday, yet one might reasonably wonder if Dismas died of happiness on that cross.

Demons swarmed, thinking they had won the soul of Dismas; yet, in Pauline terminology, Hell had no sting. Instead, the devils suffered a humiliating and eternal defeat with that promise of Christ. Using military imagery, the medieval theologian Theophylact writes of this scene: “And as every king who returns victorious carries in triumph the best of his spoils, so the Lord having despoiled the devil of a portion of his plunder, carries it with Him into Paradise.” Through His victory on the cross, Jesus carried Dismas into Paradise.

There are lessons to be learned from both thieves.

Saint Dismas teaches us to have hope and faith in God, regardless of our past life. Considering the life and death of Saint Dismas, Saint John Chrysostom writes that, “no one after his sins might despair of entrance” into Paradise. No one—not you, not me, not any soul in this world—is beyond being carried into Paradise in the arms of Jesus.

The story of Dismas is a wonderful one that I think about often. But as I recently read this Gospel passage again, I noticed that Gestas offers us a lesson as well, albeit an accidental one. When life gets particularly hard, we might be tempted to question God. It usually doesn’t take the tone of Gestas or the form of blasphemy, but it might take the form of impatience and a certain degree of doubt. We ask questions like: Why can’t God help me off this personal cross? Why can’t Jesus help me find a better job? Why can’t He bring my son back to the Catholic Faith? Why can’t God heal me from my illness? In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI broadly rephrases the essential question for us, and offers an answer:

…What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought?

 The answer is very simple: God. He has brought God…

He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope, and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little. Yes indeed, God's power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and the lasting power. Again and again, God's cause seems to be in its death throes. Yet over and over again it proves to be the thing that truly endures and saves.”

Our salvation occurs through the cross of Christ, and the crosses we endure in this life might be essential to our own salvation. As I get older, it becomes clearer to me that the crosses given to us are the best means to holiness, detachment, serenity, faith, hope, and the love of God. Our suffering—our own private Lent—lasts only for a moment, but Easter lasts forever. Thus, instead of questions to God, perhaps we should concentrate on the answer. We should look into the merciful eyes of Christ and implore him: “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power.”