|'The Good Thief,' Titian.|
The Good Thief. Sure he was converted, but at what point during the crucifixion? The answer teaches us something profound that only Jesus Christ crucified can teach us.
The Gospels are clear. Jesus was crucified between two criminals, one on his left, the other on his right. It is well known that one of the thieves insulted Jesus saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” while the other thief—termed the good and penitent thief—rebuked him saying how they deserved what they got, but “this man [Jesus] has done nothing wrong”.
The penitent thief then turned his head towards Jesus and humbly and confidently made a request, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
This is a profound expression of faith not only in the Divinity of Jesus, believing Him to be the Son of God and Saviour of the human race, but in the mercy of God to which he wholly entrusts himself by yielding to the love of Jesus—crucified beside him. It is then that Jesus replies in the affirmative, but not just saying that He will remember this man, but that He will bring Him with Him to heaven. "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
According to tradition the name of the Good Thief is Dismas, who is honoured as a Saint in the Roman Martyrology on March 25. The name of the bad thief is supposedly Gestas.
On a side note—to whet the interest into the character of the two thieves, the apocryphal text, The Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea describes the impenitent thief Gestas as follows:
[He used to] put travellers to death, murdering them with the sword, and others he exposed naked. And he hung up women by the heels, head down, and cut off their breasts, and drank the blood of infants’ limbs, never having known God, not obeying the laws, being violent from the beginning, and doing such deeds.
The old ways of the penitent thief are a little ‘less heavy’ although they shy away from being saintly…
[He] kept an inn [and]… made attacks upon the rich, but was good to the poor — a thief like Tobit, for he buried the bodies of the poor. And he set his hand to robbing the multitude of the Jews, and stole the law itself in Jerusalem, and stripped naked the daughter of Caiaphas, who was priestess of the sanctuary, and took away from its place the mysterious deposit itself placed there by Solomon. Such were his doings.
We shouldn’t spurn such apocryphal texts, but we must take such accounts with a grain of salt. Regardless the Good Thief was a thief, hardly the model citizen.
In Matthew, what is rendered “the robbers” who were crucified beside Jesus (Mt 27:44) is the Greek word λῃστής which bears the connotations of booty, and refers to not just any robber, but a bandit, a brigand or plunderer who steals out in the open by way of violence. In a way the Good Thief, whose account above makes him sort of seem like a Robin Hood figure, was the Ancient Israelite equivalent of an Australian bush ranger.
Luke simply calls them “criminals”.
Haters' Gonna Hate...Well, until They Don't
Yet what is often forgotten or unnoticed about the figure of the Good Thief is that this thief wasn’t made into a saint from the moment he was crucified. No, for in fact the Gospels’ of Matthew and Mark clearly state that “the robbers”—in the plural— “who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way” as the crowd who ridiculed him (Mt 27:44, see also Mk 15:32b). There are no more than two people crucified with Jesus, and both are thieves (Mt 27:38; Mk 15:27; Jn 19:18). This means that during the crucifixion both thieves are having it out over Jesus—insulting Him just like everyone else.
Luke’s account is the only account that puts the Good Thief in a good light. This account of the penitent thief isn’t contradictory to the other Gospels because all Luke is doing is recording the words of a man who has been profoundly touched and converted: instantaneously and miraculously. His soul snatched with the swiftness of a thief from the clutches of the devil. A man who beforehand had been jeering at Jesus too. Yet once the Good Thief was converted he repented within, rebuked his fellow criminal for insulting Jesus—itself an act of love, defending his Lord whom he now served, and then professed his faith in Him.
The Church Father St. Ephraim (306-373 A.D.) commentates on Luke 23, stating how Jesus could have easily yielded to the request of the impenitent thief, to come down from the cross and save Himself and the two thieves. “It would have been easy for him to use a miracle to conquer anyone as a disciple. [Yet] he produced a more powerful miracle when he forced the scoffer of truth to adore him.” The scoffer being the Good Thief who was converted from scoffer to adorer.
When Was Dismas Snatched?
Relying on Scripture alone, it is not possible to pinpoint with accuracy an exact moment or trigger that brought about the conversion of the Good Thief. Yet we can work out the period during which it occurred. [Tip: Skip to the next heading if you're not a fan of detailed 'why reasoning' and want to get straight to the punch].
One thing for certain is that it took place sometime after the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ garments and after Jesus’ words: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing”; and before the final words, “It is finished” and “Father into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Jn 19:30; Lk 23:46).
The narrative in John flows sequentially from the moment Jesus entrusts Mary and John to each other, to the words “I thirst,” and the drinking of the vinegar which immediately precedes his final words and death. Indicating that these events happened one after the other, and in this order leading immediately up to the moment of Jesus’ death.
In Matthew Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou abandoned me” (27:46) also takes place in these last moments. For having said this “at once [someone] ran and took a sponge, filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink.” (Mt 27:48). Keeping in mind Jesus’ drinking of the vinegar took place just before he died.
Based on a cross-Gospel analysis what is apparent is that the Good Thief was ‘made good’ and converted sometime after Jesus said, “Father forgive them…” and before the beautiful scene where Jesus entrusts His Mother to His beloved disciple John, and vice versa.
The Sound of Silence
Thus, the conversion takes place after Jesus’ first word on the Cross, but before all of his other words. The conversion also takes place sometime after Jesus says, “Father forgive them,” and not immediately after it, because these words seem to be spoken in the first moments of Jesus’ crucifixion; and Luke gives the impression that it is after this that the barrage of insults come, and hence even after these words we can assume the ‘good’ thief remained a scoffer.
This is significant because what it shows is that the Good Thief was not necessarily converted as a direct result of Jesus’ words spoken—although those first words must have had their effect, sooner or later—but that the Good Thief was converted during a period when Jesus was silent, when “he did not open his mouth” (Is 53:7). A time when Jesus the Incarnate Word was speaking louder than speech by way of profound example: patient, meek, without a harsh word thrown back at his deriders; naked, bruised and bloody. His wounds were doing the talking, and their message was God’s love.
The Good Thief was pierced by the lance of the Holy Spirit and was brought to a sudden realisation of who it was that was nailed beside him. First, he would have stopped his scoffing. Next, perhaps he pondered silently within himself midst writhes of pain, as the Spirit changed his heart of stone to one of flesh. Finally, he heard his Lord being insulted, the one whom He previously decried, and at this point he defends Jesus, professes his guilt, and declares his faith.
His Wounds, My Wounds
The early ecclesiastical writer Maximus of Turin (late 4th-5th century) captures well the cause of the Good Thief’s conversion. How it was during a period when Jesus was silently-suffering that grace worked on him until it radically changed him.
Although he sees his [Jesus’] gaping wounds and observes his blood pouring forth, he believes him to be God whom he does not recognise as guilty. He acknowledges him to be righteous whom he does not think of as a sinner. He says to that other complaining thief, “We certainly are receiving what is due our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” He understood that Christ received these blows because of others’ sins. He sustained these wounds because of others’ crimes. The thief knew that the wounds on the body of Christ were not Christ’s wounds but the thief’s; therefore, after he recognised his own wounds on Christ’s body, he began to love all the more.
The same goes for us. Jesus will mean nothing to us, we will push Him out of our lives and may even insult Him and those who follow Him, unless we see in the wounds of Jesus the effect of our sins: not mere wounds that ought to be gasped at, nor wounds caused by Roman soldiers at the bequest of the Jewish authorities. But wounds we caused, which our sins caused, and which our persistence in habits we know to be bad rip open more and more—inflicting in the past on Jesus’ body, what we choose to do today against our conscience.
Yet we mustn’t stop there, for like the Good Thief we must see in the wounds of Jesus the love of a God who let Himself be hurt unto “death, death on a cross” (Phil 2:8) because He wanted to prove to us His love. This is how much He wants our company, our friendship and personality. In Jesus hangs the full weight of the punishment which should be ours because of our fallen nature and sinfulness. “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Is 53:5)
Nothing... Except Jesus Christ and Him Crucified
The Good Thief came to know the love of a God who sacrificed Himself for him—yes, for he a wretched brigand! He only came to know this because of his own crucifixion, his very own sufferings and brokenness which he saw in the light of the Cross: ‘Here is a God who loves me because of my misery!’ And it was nowhere else but in the presence of Jesus Crucified, and no one else but Jesus Crucified, silently loving him, that made him realise this. Such realisation of God's living love for him made him already taste in advance the bliss of paradise in his heart before he even got to heaven.
It is only in silent prayer spent in the belief that we are present with Jesus—in an attitude of total openness to receiving His Love that flows like blood, that we too can be converted again and again, into deeper and higher states of union with Jesus, expanding in love for him as we accept and learn from Him what it means to be crucified.
But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Gal 6:14).
By the conversion of the Good Thief Jesus is showing us that it’s not “lofty words or wisdom,” (1 Cor 2:1) any book, article, learning, studies or sermon that is going to bring us today into paradise and cleave us in union with God who dwells within. It’s going to be Christ Crucified by means of the Cross; and nothing is going to make us understand this until we find a secret place to be alone, stretch out our hands, accept our brokenness and all our wounds of sin, and cry out in bold faith just as the Good Thief did, on the saving name of Jesus.
Try it. Try it now even. Try it before you sleep tonight.
“Now… tonight, you will be with me in paradise.”
For sure, we might say like St. Paul, I live here and now this mortal life below, but “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 1:20).
 Other names include, Demas, Titus and Rakh.
 Bible Hub, 3027. léstés, http://biblehub.com/greek/3027.htm.
 Ephraim as referenced in Arthur A. Just, Jr., and Thomas C. Oden eds. Luke, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsityPress, 2003), 363.
 Maximus of Turin, Sermon 74.3., as referenced in Arthur A. Just, Jr., and Thomas C. Oden eds. Luke, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsityPress, 2003), 364.