Imagine a middle-aged man who has lived a life of debauchery, decadence and waste. A man whom society would probably consider a menace, a “good-for-nothing” and an absolute failure in life. Imagine that this man whom many have given up on – possibly including himself – decides one day that he has had it, that an ultimatum is nigh. He thus commits a heinous crime: he steals something very valuable, clearly violating one of Moses’ 10 Commandments, a crime that requires him to be executed – hanged on a cross to die on Mount Golgotha … right next to Jesus Christ.
In many aspects, this thief had lived a soiled life of “waste”. Yet, his entire life also led him to die on this most hallowed ground – a place where innocent blood was spilled, where the generosity of God met the madness of mankind, where divine love overcame eternal damnation. Indeed, this thief witnessed one of the most poignant and pivotal moments of salvation history – he was physically next to Jesus’ most intimate moment on earth – Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice for all of us.
As such, I have often wondered what was going through the thief’s mind when he witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and how he felt hanging next to the Saviour of the world. Surely all of these would have had a profound effect, resulting in the eventual conversion of this thief, the thief whom we know and refer to as the “good” thief or the penitent thief.
The “good” thief – what an oxymoron! How can a thief possibly be “good”? How can a criminal be worthy of redemption? Indeed, why do we even call him “good” in the first place? Perhaps, then, goodness resides in the recognition that Jesus is Lord. Perhaps, goodness surfaces when we first acknowledge our sinful nature and humble ourselves enough to merely ask God to “remember [us] when he enters his kingdom”.
It is truly interesting to further consider the two things that the “good” thief mentioned in Luke’s Gospel: “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” (Luke 23:41) Here we witness the first layer of conversion – the recognition that the thief himself had committed a criminal act. Here we see that the thief was aware that he was a sinner and he was chastising the other thief crucified next to Jesus. On closer analysis, we also see that the “good” thief also recognised that Jesus “ha[d] done nothing criminal” – that justice was wrongly and unfairly met out to Jesus.
Next, the “good” thief said, “Jesus remember me, when come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42) In this one sentence, we see a clear sign that the “good” thief knew that Jesus was a king – a king not of earthly riches and temporality but a king of eternity. Here we see the second layer of conversion: the recognition that Jesus is Lord.
During Good Friday services in the Catholic tradition, is this not what we also sing during the Veneration of the Cross? Do we not also request that Jesus remembers us? Are we not then good “thieves” as well? Indeed, you and I have, in the course of our lives, also taken things that did not belong to us. Have we not stole from others – if not tangible then intangibly? Maybe we have taken someone else’s ideas; maybe through our gossips and slander, we have stolen the good reputation of another? Perhaps then, the greater call in all of these is to recognise that we too are all “thieves” in our own ways, that all of us are truly sinners. Akin to the “good” thief, we too are also invited to recognise Jesus’s Lordship, claim him as our Savior and believe in His redemption and salvation for us.
Herein lies the beautiful paradox: that it is when we recognise just how little we are, when we realise how deserving we are of crucifixion and damnation, indeed, when we lower ourselves completely, is the precise moment when Jesus lifts us up to highest heaven. Jesus took the very little that was offered to him by the “good” thief, that very humble offering to “remember” and returns it with a lavish promise of paradise – something that only God himself could provide. Similar to Matthew 14 in the multiplication of the 5 loaves and 2 fishes, Jesus does multiply the very little that we offer Him into something beautiful. He gives freely, generously and lavishly. Perhaps, the meeting between the “good” thief and Jesus Christ on both their crosses is essentially the reunion of the prodigal son with the prodigal father.
I often imagine how the good thief must have felt when he heard Jesus’ reply to his request: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) I imagined that the “good” thief must have felt immensely redeemed. I surmised that the “good” thief must have been overwhelmed with emotions, that in one sweeping moment, Jesus redeemed him eternally. I daresay that those words spoken by Jesus at His crucifixion were one of the most loving phrases that he had ever said during his time on earth.
May we then recognise the “good” thief within us all. May we be quick to acknowledge the times in which we have stolen from others and admit our innate sinfulness. May we correspondingly remember that Jesus is Lord and (re)claim that divine Truism. May our exclamation that Jesus is Lord prompt us to humbly request that Jesus remember us. And may Jesus’ words to the good thief reside in the depths of our hearts as well, that today – yes, this very day of conversion, repentance and redemption – we too will be with Jesus in paradise.
© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Christopher Chok