St. Dismas: True Conversion

The criminals crucified beside Jesus are fascinating because their reactions to the Lord contrast so sharply, and the contrast is a lesson about salvation, about human beings and about the Savior. When St. Luke’s Passion Narrative is proclaimed in the Church’s liturgy on Palm Sunday, those criminals well be presented to the faithful. 

St. Dismas
“Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Shutterstock photo

Here is the kernel of the story as revealed in the Gospel. One criminal said to Jesus, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us” (Lk 23:42). It is a repudiation of Jesus, a bluntly stated conclusion that Jesus is a fake. The other criminal said, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42). To him, the Lord answered, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43). 

They were alike in a critical detail. Both were facing death as a consequence of their crimes. The repentant thief admitted that their convictions were in order. In the moral sense, regardless of the details of their wrongdoing, they had sinned. They differed in their dramatically fundamental assessments of Jesus. 

Of the two convicts, obviously the most appealing is the criminal who repents, whom tradition calls the Good Thief. He represents Christian faith. He receives an eternal reward. By contrast, while all others humiliate Jesus, ignoring the agony the Lord is enduring, and while all others taunt Jesus as the helpless “king of the Jews,” the repentant criminal proclaims that the Lord indeed is king. 

Never denying his own crimes, the repentant criminal humbly asks only to be remembered when the kingdom comes. He is dying, as Jesus is dying. Like Jesus, he also is humble. St. Ambrose said that the Good Thief asked the Lord only to be remembered.

Individual Faith

The Good Thief’s exclamation provides one of the great testimonies of individual faith. In the repentant criminal, St. Jerome saw faith. To any sane human eye — but only a human eye — Jesus of Nazareth on Calvary was just a human being dying in the process of a cruel execution, framed in a kangaroo court perhaps, a victim of circumstances perhaps, but in the end just a human being. Able because of faith to pierce through the appearances of the moment, the repentant criminal acknowledged Jesus as a king and as the lord of life. 

It is excellent material for reflecting upon the spiritual realities that undergird Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to observe these months as the Year of Faith. 

Great theological writers have seen in the repentant criminal something akin to a Christian Everyman. Origen said that the Lord’s blessed assurance of salvation for the repentant criminal actually was addressed to all humans beings who truly love the Lord. St. Ambrose wrote, with the repentant criminal in mind, that on Calvary “the whole perversity of the devil’s mystery was abolished, while humility triumphed as conqueror. . . .” 

In another way, the universality of humanity enters the picture. All humans crucified Christ. The Lucan Narrative uses the terms “they” and “them” when referring to the tormentors of Jesus, never differentiating between Jews and Romans, placing all human beings on the bench beside Pilate when he condemned Jesus. 

The place of universal humankind, of universal human sin and of salvation in the story goes directly to the ancient teaching about Original Sin. Original Sin first drew people away from God, and, in the process, they drove life from their lives. Original Sin’s effects continue on and on, new with each human birth. They occur in concert with another universal human characteristic, free will as theologians call it. The problem, confirmed in human experience through all of history, in every life, is that human choices can, and indeed often do, lead to disaster. Diminishing the quality of freedom to will and to act are human imperfections and weaknesses. 

Salvation’s gift is grace from God, lavishly given through the faith of a believer. Divine grace heals and illuminates. As the ancients grasped so well, the holy are the truly wise. Here again is the Good Thief, a convicted criminal — and convicted with cause — but extraordinarily perceptive because of his faith. By contrast, Pilate, the judge, the instrument of Roman justice, the representative of the Roman system that boasted of such perfection, failed to realize the identity of Jesus. 

Enduring all that Roman crucifixion entailed and desertion by every friend, Jesus, the personification and bearer of divine mercy, rebuked no one. Again by contrast, the dying, suffering Lord begged for God’s forgiveness for the tormentors. “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do” (Lk 23:23). “. . .You will be with me in paradise.” 

The Good Thief addressed Jesus alone, and in this is the absolute centrality of the Lord Jesus in salvation. Jesus is the Savior. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is the son of Mary. He is human. As human, Christ had accepted every human limitation, including death. 

Here, in all its depth, therefore, is the Incarnation. The Incarnation is dynamic, not static. It is not simply about Jesus. It is not just about human nature in the Hypostatic Union. It is not just about humankind. It is about humanity, of course, but it is about every human being. Human beings connect with Calvary, and with Christ, in the Incarnation, a profound theological proposition that St. Paul so stunningly developed in his epistle, and that has such strong ecclesial implications. 

Still another contrast is in the very setting of Calvary. By any standard, death by crucifixion was a terrifying experience to endure, certainly, but even to observe, as the Roman executioners fulfilled their duties with brutal efficiency. The victim was helpless. Each crucifixion was a scene of horror, inhumanity, agony and with no result but death. 

Nailed to the cross, in agony, dying, Jesus was able to grant eternal life, a power that would never be in the hands of any earthly authority. 

In his cynicism, defiance and anger, in truth a mask for despair, the unrepentant thief is proud — and alone. By contrast, the Good Thief is assured that he will be with the Lord that very day.

Spiritual Paradise

St. Thomas Aquinas saw in the terms “king” and “kingdom” that Jesus was referring not to an earthly place, or corporeal state, but to the spiritual paradise agleam with divine glory. Eternal life, genuine peace, will never belong to this material world. 

“. . .You will be with me in paradise.” Being in paradise means being, and living, with Jesus, not just occupying a particular place and venerating the Lord from afar. 

The very event itself creates contrast in the widest dimension. Despite all the horror of Good Friday, the last sentence to be written in the story sparkles with hope and with life. 

Extend the story, without losing at all the force of the revealed writing of Luke’s Gospel. Might it be said that as Dismas found faith, and as he opened himself to the healing brought by faith, in effect he experienced a stirring of something very essential to the human spirit? 

Does not each person, deep in his or her heart, yearn to be free, to live and to be reassured in life forever? As St. Augustine said, “Our hearts, Lord, are restless until they rest in thee.” Are not all persons searching and longing until at last they truly meet God? Is life without God, certainly the deliberate repudiation of God and of Christ, a way to aggravate this basic human want, bringing in its wake frustration and hopelessness? 

After committing serious crimes, perhaps after a lifetime of crime, did not the repentant criminal find in Jesus, the crucified king, all that he had wanted in life? 

Who was the Good Thief? The Church has celebrated the feast of the so called “Good Thief” on March 25, although of course the feast of the Annunciation has, and does, eclipse it liturgically. He is also an important figure in the piety of the Christian East.

Criminal Background

Legend and pious conjecture have attempted to add to what is known about these two criminals. Such pondering — however well-intentioned or uplifting to hear — hardly shares the credentials of authenticity and inerrancy that belong to the inspired writings of St. Luke’s Gospel. Nevertheless, the suppositions are interesting to pursue. Little detail is given about either criminal. After all, the Lucan account includes only three verses in an otherwise rather detailed section. 

The name of Dismas appeared in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, and this name has rather won the day in Christian lore. Catholic piety refers to St. Dismas. Other ancient sources, none Scriptural, call the repentant criminal Dumachus, Demas, Zoatham, and Rach. Gestas is the name tradition gives to the other thief. 

Clearly, they were criminals under Roman law, but which Roman law had they broken? The common, longstanding assumption, not altogether drawn from idle speculation, is that they were thieves. If so, what thievery had they committed? Was their thievery associated with terrorism in some wild, frustrated hatred of the Romans? Was it highway robbery or just stealing from people? Highway robbery has a certain edge if suppositions are to follow.

Commerce Robbers

St. John Chrysostom thought that at least the Good Thief lived in the Judean desert, where he would be away from the long arm of the law but also near the trade routes from east to west, from Jericho to Jerusalem. Some have had the hunch that highway robbery on this road was frequent, so the Lord’s parable of the Good Samaritan, in Luke 10:25-37, and in Luke alone by the way, would have seemed plausible to those people who heard Jesus tell the story. 

Robbers would not always have preyed upon hapless individual travelers such as the Good Samaritan, if guessing leads to assumptions when blended with facts. Commerce was brisk between East and West, and the Romans wanted it this way. Caravans carrying rich cargoes between eastern points in the empire, or beyond, to the West and even to Rome, would have gone through the desert lying between the Dead Sea and the Holy City. 

Indeed, more than a few historians think that high on Pilate’s agenda was the reduction in cases of highway robbery. Therefore, so goes this supposition, Pilate dealt quite conclusively with bandits. Any thief, if apprehended, went to the cross. After all, the Roman rule of thumb in administering justice was to be “brutally efficient.” 

(Another old tradition had it that Dismas once lived in a desert west of Jerusalem, and through this desert Mary and Joseph went with the infant Jesus during the flight into Egypt. On this route, thieves set upon them. Dismas was among them. He never forgot the incident, nor was he ever without the effect of having encountered the Savior.) 

Occasionally, fundamentalist Protestants, and others, use this story to say that baptism is not necessary for salvation and that good works are not needed. Was not the Good Thief a sinner and unbaptized whom Jesus granted entry into heaven? He was a sinner and, in the strict sense of baptism with water, unbaptized. He was baptized in the spirit and by the Spirit, receiving what Catholic theology and discipline call baptism of desire. He could not receive the baptism of water, nor did he live long enough to perform good works. 

Luke presents his conversion as so earnest that it must be assumed that, had he survived crucifixion in some fantastic change of circumstances, he would have done anything to comply with all that the Lord taught as required for salvation, and that his deeds would have been outward signs of his inner faith. 

Ephrem the Syrian wrote, 

There came to my ear from the Scripture which had been read a word that caused me joy on the subject of the thief; it gave comfort to my soul amidst the multitude of vices, telling how He had compassion on the thief. O may He bring me too into that garden at the sound of whose name I am overwhelmed by joy; my mind bursts its reins as it goes forth to contemplate Him. 

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. Amen. TP 

MSGR. CAMPION, a priest of the Nashville Diocese, is editor of The Priest magazine and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.