The Good Thief

This Easter our daughter Peggy marked a big milestone in her spiritual journey.  She was received in the Catholic Church, and as customary, she chose a patron saint for her confirmation. Dismas, the good thief crucified with Jesus, might seem an odd choice for a pretty young girl with missionary aspirations. Fr. Chuck asked jokingly if she was planning a life of crime. But I couldn’t be happier about a spiritual model for my daughter; Dismas is one of my great heroes.

icon by Lissa Janknegt

icon by Lissa Janknegt

When I was a child, every time I heard mention of the good thief in sermons, he was used as an example of the never-too-late-to-be-saved principle.  Fair enough.  Dismas did have a nick of time conversion accompanied by a glorious promise straight from the mouth of Jesus. But when I was in my early 30’s, I had a rather mystical experience which made me see Dismas, and my Lord, in an entirely new light.

I think I was in the exhaustion of early pregnancy with our third child at the time.  I took an afternoon nap and upon waking, I had a vision - something like a dream in a semi-conscious state.  In my mind’s eye I saw Jesus on the cross in between the two thieves.  Jesus was in the center of the picture, but my attention was drawn to one of the thieves at his side.  Then clear as day, I heard this text from Matthew 25.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

I was astounded because I understood that, in this vision, Jesus was speaking about his friend, the good thief.  You see, when Jesus was crucified, he was naked.  He allowed himself to be stripped and mocked, beaten and humiliated.  The crowds condemned him; Peter denied him; soldiers taunted him; even the dying criminal at his side jeered. But Dismas spoke up and covered Jesus with his words.  He defended Jesus’ honor; he recognized the injustice of Jesus’ sentence.  Then he said some of the craziest words in scripture.

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

What was this man thinking??!!  At the hour of Christ’s crucifixion, who else could imagine that he would come into a kingdom?  Who else had faith that Jesus could and would still come as the triumphant Messiah?  Who else professed a hope beyond the grave?  Those words of faith must have been like water to Jesus’ soul, like a cloak of honor thrown over his exposed body.

Like all of us, Dismas was saved through grace.  His sins, which were many, were pardoned. But I don't believe it was only pity which moved Jesus in the cross. When the two embraced on the other side of the grave, I imagine Jesus with a big smile, saying truthfully, “Come, blessed of my Father.  Enter the Kingdom prepared for you.  For I was naked and you clothed me!”

I pray that Peggy would always have the faith of the Good Thief, to believe in Christ’s coming Kingdom no matter how bleak her circumstances.