"The Wise Thief" - A Reflection on the Passion of Christ
One of the most poignant and stirring scenes in Saint Luke’s account of Christ’s Passion is that of the good criminal. We often call him the “good thief” or the “penitent thief” following Matthew and Mark who refer to thieves being crucified with Jesus, but since Luke calls them “criminals” I will use that designation.
“Good criminal” seems like an oxymoron, since the expression “criminal” brings to mind an unsavory and despicable person. It conjures up images of someone far away from God, far from anything good and decent—someone to be avoided. There is no reason to think that this criminal was the exception to these impressions.
Throughout Luke’s Gospel, there are several stories about unsavory people, people we don’t want to like. Some of them are read on Sundays during the year, so they are probably familiar to us: the parable of the Good Samaritan, the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, the parable of the Prodigal Son, and the story of Zacchaeus. What is notable in all these stories is that the unsavory, unlikable person—contrary to our instincts—is the one who does the right thing and does what God wants. The crucified criminal follows this pattern.
Jesus, who often spent time and shared meals with sinners, is now crucified in the midst of criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Luke has us encounter three segments of people who mock Jesus, His Messiahship and His Kingship:
rulers who say “He saved others, let him save himself, if he is the Christ of
God, his Chosen One!” (Luke 23:35)
(2) The soldiers standing by who said “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (Luke 23:37)3)
(3) And one of the two crucified criminals who says “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39)
How sad that this criminal, as he’s dying, feels the need to join in the mocking of a fellow dying man. Rather than letting go of such pettiness, he finishes his life by selfishly trying to increase the pain and hurt in the world. We can also sense a bit of desperation in what he says, and what I will call self-serving belief: he may accept Jesus as the Christ, but only if Jesus proves it by saving Himself and by saving the criminals from their punishment.
Jesus doesn’t respond to any of those who mock Him, or to the criminal’s self-serving attitude. But the other criminal does respond.
While we call him penitent, he doesn’t articulate repentance for his crimes, but in his response to the other criminal, he does express his guilt and that both criminals deserve their punishment of crucifixion. He also confesses Jesus’ innocence. As a guilty criminal, it would be insolent to ask to be delivered from crucifixion when an innocent man is undergoing the same sentence.
Now, as he approaches the end of his life, the criminal turns to Jesus and says one simple phrase: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). With this one line, the criminal confesses Jesus as Messiah and as King. He accepts as truth everything that the rulers, soldiers and other criminal mocked.
How did this criminal know that Jesus was Christ and King? What pushed him to accept what others rejected? Luke doesn’t say. All we know is that this unsavory criminal understands the truth of who Jesus is, and responds—and not a minute too soon.
While Jesus doesn’t react to mocking, He responds to this show of faith: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Maybe the criminal expected to be remembered on some future day of Jesus’ glorious kingship. Yet, since the criminal served as a martyr—as a witness to Jesus’ innocence, and to His being Christ and King—Jesus exceeded his request. Not only would he be remembered, but he would be with Jesus in paradise that very day.
Luke doesn’t develop the account any further. We do not know what happened to the mocking criminal. But since Jesus has authority, since His word produces what it says, we know for certain that the good criminal entered Paradise.
As we contemplate this scene that Saint Luke places before us, we can move in three directions:
First, the contrasting attitudes of the two criminals present us with a very critical decision: do we accept that Jesus is Christ and King? Do we want to be in God’s Kingdom, that place where God rules, or do we want to be in charge? If we do want to be in God’s Kingdom, do we live and act like it? While the criminal came to faith very late in life, he presumably lived what little time he had left faithfully, as much as he was able hanging on a cross. What about us, who may have an entire lifetime?
Sometimes we like to think that because we are in church, or do things for the church, that it automatically means that we will inherit God’s Kingdom. And here’s our second lesson: Before we number ourselves with the believers, consider all those unlikable, unsavory people in Luke’s Gospel—the Samaritan, the publican, the prodigal son, Zacchaeus, and the good criminal—how they did what God wanted while the pious, religious individuals didn’t. As pious, religious, church-going people, we need to constantly reexamine ourselves in light of the Gospel and see if we are living up to what God expects, and adjust where necessary. That is a very daunting task, and can seem hopeless as we constantly find ourselves falling short of the ideal.
And that brings us to the third and final point: This account of the good criminal should bring us a lot of hope. If Christ did not reject a condemned criminal who, at the last minute, confessed Him and asked to be remembered in His kingdom, do we think that Christ will reject us if we approach Him with the same faith and humility right now? God is loving, merciful, kind, welcoming, and is always waiting for us to turn to Him. He justified the criminal in one moment and He can do the same for us.
In one moment, O Lord,
You graciously granted paradise to the penitent thief.
Now, by the tree of Your Cross,
Enlighten, sanctify, and save me.
(The Hymn of Light from the Matins of Great Friday)
- Seminarian & Subdeacon David Mastroberte