Story of the good thief speaks to all sinners

in the beginning
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Shortly after the feast of All Saints, I decided to speak to our schoolchildren about the saints.

Some of the saints take a special interest in a specific group of people. For example, St. Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians; St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children. Even criminals have a patron saint: St. Dismas.

That is the name that tradition ascribes to one of the criminals hanging next to the crucified Jesus. In Sunday’s Gospel reading, Lk 23:35-43, we hear how he rebukes the other criminal, also crucified next to Jesus, who has joined in mocking Jesus.

This criminal who has rebuked the other criminal is sometimes referred to as the good thief, or Dismas.

In his exchange with the other criminal, Dismas admits to his own wrongdoing, while upholding Jesus’ innocence. Consequently, Dismas turns to Jesus and acknowledges Jesus’ importance as king: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

The rulers and the soldiers have been mocking Jesus by laughingly calling him “the King of the Jews.” But Dismas turns that insult on its head. Was he only trying to humor a dying man? Surely, he did not realize all the implications of what he was saying. In any case, he speaks in a respectful manner.

And he speaks the truth. That is why we hear this passage as the Gospel reading this Sunday, as we celebrate the solemnity of Christ the King. We join with Dismas, the good thief, in acclaiming Jesus as king.

Of the four Gospels, Luke’s is the only one that draws this contrast between the two criminals crucified on either side of Jesus. This fits in with the tendency of Luke’s Gospel to present a pair, where the two contrast with each other.

Consider the story of Martha and Mary (Lk 10: 38-42), the prodigal son and his elder brother (Lk 15: 11-32), and the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16: 19-31). These stories are found only in the Gospel of Luke. This device of contrasting the two figures enables Luke to hold up one as an example for us to imitate, and the other as the example for us to reject. It’s as simple as black and white.

In the case of the good thief, we see the example of a person who admits his wrongdoing, while also turning to Jesus for salvation. That makes him a good example for us all to follow — not only criminals — since we all are sinners.

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

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