by Steve Héroux.
We talk about "getting into heaven" by which, unfortunately, we often mean "not going to hell." As if life were some great toil towards an abstract and menacing goal: the finish line towards which we move with dread, and after which we hope to awake with relief as if from a bad dream.
And in order to get beyond that line, we think we have to live an impeccable life.
But the Gospel tells us an incredible story, perhaps one of the most magnificent gospel stories—the story of the man who "stole heaven," the story of the good thief.
I’ve always had a bit of a struggle with the fact that this thief is called "good." That is probably because I am thinking about a Pharisaic kind of goodness—goodness according to the rules.
I guess I’d rather he be called the "wicked" thief or the "wasted" thief," or the "good-for-nothing" thief, or the "hopelessly wretched" thief. Well, okay, perhaps he wasn’t that bad.
But that’s exactly my point. If he wasn’t that bad, then it poses a serious question. Was he saved by Jesus because he was, in fact, "good"?
Perhaps in his case, the crucifixion was a tragic mistake. The Romans had power to execute whomever they pleased, and they might indeed have condemned the not-so-guilty or even an innocent man to such a death. After all, they did that to Jesus.
But if this man had not deserved his sentence, would he not have been the first one to cry out over being treated unjustly? What did he have to lose?
Yet, the Gospel tells us he said that his execution was just. He said in all simplicity that the worst punishment a man could suffer at the time, a punishment reserved for slaves and despised malefactors, was rightly his to endure.
A thief? He might have been a murderer. Even a terrorist. He might have raped. Certainly, he had trampled God’s commandments, even God himself, for whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me (Mt 25:40). For sure, the good thief would not qualify for heaven under the requirements of the Scribes and Pharisees.
Yet, from the very mouth of God, the good thief heard these words: Today you will be with me in Paradise (Lk 23:43)
So, what exactly did Jesus see in the thief that enabled him to "steal" heaven? Oh, that is the wrong question to ask—one that we can’t answer.
The question is rather: "What did the thief see in Jesus?" What did he see that made him exclaim: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom (Lk 23:42)?
Here is where we touch the incredible beauty of Jesus Christ. The thief saw what we, too, long to see and what is, indeed, ours to see—over and over again. It is shown to us so clearly in the Gospel, especially in the story of his passion and death. Do we see it?
He turned his eyes toward Jesus. He did not see a handsome, smiling, benevolent face—the unsullied face of a distant, condescending higher one.
No, he saw Jesus at his side, suffering the same fate as he was, condemned as he was. The thief’s shame was Christ’s own and Christ’s was the thief’s. Between him and Jesus, there was no barrier. Jesus and he, naked before each other, were one.
The thief saw his own anguished soul gazing back on him in the disfigured face of the Incarnate God. And in that face, the eyes of Compassion Itself pierced his heart.
"Jesus, remember me…" "This day, you will be with me in paradise."
We call him the good thief. He makes us wonder: "What then is the meaning of goodness?" If goodness is the trusting cry of a heart towards Mercy even when all justice would have it otherwise, then the thief of the Gospel is indeed good—however wasted, good-for-nothing, or hopelessly wretched he might have been.
Dismas is a shining icon of God’s unconditional, loving, all-embracing mercy—his steadfast purpose to save what is lost. Perhaps more than any other character in the Gospel, he speaks to us of our Savior’s very heart, urging us to fix our gaze upon it.
Good St. Dismas, you are the saint without a life of heroic virtue. You are the saint without a life of virtue. You entrusted your condemned soul to Jesus’ merciful love, and he raised you up with him in glory. Pray to God for me, that I too may see what you saw and with such simplicity and candor, believe.
If you enjoy our articles, we ask you to please consider subscribing to the print edition of Restoration; it's only $10 a year, and will help us stay in print. Thanks, and God bless you!