"The Wise Thief" - A Reflection on the Passion of Christ
One of the most poignant and stirring scenes in Saint Luke’s
account of Christ’s Passion is that of the good criminal. We often call him the “good thief” or the “penitent
thief” following Matthew and Mark who refer to thieves being crucified with
Jesus, but since Luke calls them “criminals” I will use that designation.
“Good criminal” seems like an oxymoron, since the expression
“criminal” brings to mind an unsavory and despicable person. It conjures up images of someone far away
from God, far from anything good and decent—someone to be avoided. There is no reason to think that this
criminal was the exception to these impressions.
Throughout Luke’s Gospel, there are several stories about
unsavory people, people we don’t want
to like. Some of them are read on
Sundays during the year, so they are probably familiar to us: the parable of the Good Samaritan, the
parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, the parable of the Prodigal Son, and
the story of Zacchaeus. What is notable in
all these stories is that the unsavory, unlikable person—contrary to our
instincts—is the one who does the right thing and does what God wants. The crucified criminal follows this pattern.
Jesus, who often spent time and shared meals with sinners, is
now crucified in the midst of criminals, one on his right and one on his
left. Luke has us encounter three
segments of people who mock Jesus, His Messiahship and His Kingship:
rulers who say “He saved others, let him save himself, if he is the Christ of
God, his Chosen One!” (Luke 23:35)
soldiers standing by who said “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
one of the two crucified criminals who says “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39)
How sad that this criminal, as he’s dying, feels the need to
join in the mocking of a fellow dying man.
Rather than letting go of such pettiness, he finishes his life by selfishly
trying to increase the pain and hurt in the world. We can also sense a bit of desperation in
what he says, and what I will call self-serving belief: he may
accept Jesus as the Christ, but only if
Jesus proves it by saving Himself and by saving the criminals from their
Jesus doesn’t respond to any of those who mock Him, or to
the criminal’s self-serving attitude. But
the other criminal does respond.
While we call him penitent, he doesn’t articulate repentance
for his crimes, but in his response to the other criminal, he does express his
guilt and that both criminals deserve their punishment of crucifixion. He also confesses Jesus’ innocence. As a guilty criminal, it would be insolent to
ask to be delivered from crucifixion when an innocent man is undergoing the
Now, as he approaches the end of his life, the criminal turns
to Jesus and says one simple phrase:
“Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). With this one line, the criminal confesses Jesus
as Messiah and as King. He accepts as
truth everything that the rulers, soldiers and other criminal mocked.
How did this criminal know that Jesus was Christ and King? What pushed him to accept what others
rejected? Luke doesn’t say. All we know is that this unsavory criminal
understands the truth of who Jesus is, and responds—and not a minute too soon.
While Jesus doesn’t react to mocking, He responds to this
show of faith: “Truly, I say to you,
today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Maybe the criminal expected to be remembered on some future
day of Jesus’ glorious kingship. Yet,
since the criminal served as a martyr—as a witness to Jesus’ innocence, and to
His being Christ and King—Jesus exceeded his request. Not only would he be remembered, but he would
be with Jesus in paradise that very day.
Luke doesn’t develop the account any further. We do not know what happened to the mocking
criminal. But since Jesus has authority,
since His word produces what it says, we know for certain that the good
criminal entered Paradise.
As we contemplate this scene that Saint Luke places before
us, we can move in three directions:
First, the contrasting attitudes of the two criminals
present us with a very critical decision:
do we accept that Jesus is Christ and King? Do we want to be in God’s Kingdom, that place
where God rules, or do we want to be in charge? If we do want to be in God’s Kingdom, do we
live and act like it? While the criminal
came to faith very late in life, he presumably lived what little time he had
left faithfully, as much as he was able hanging on a cross. What about us, who may have an entire
Sometimes we like to think that because we are in church, or
do things for the church, that it automatically means that we will inherit God’s
Kingdom. And here’s our second lesson: Before we number ourselves with the
believers, consider all those unlikable, unsavory people in Luke’s Gospel—the
Samaritan, the publican, the prodigal son, Zacchaeus, and the good criminal—how
they did what God wanted while the pious, religious individuals didn’t. As pious, religious, church-going people, we
need to constantly reexamine ourselves in light of the Gospel and see if we are
living up to what God expects, and adjust where necessary. That is a very daunting task, and can seem
hopeless as we constantly find ourselves falling short of the ideal.
And that brings us to the third and final point: This account of the good criminal should
bring us a lot of hope. If Christ did
not reject a condemned criminal who, at the last minute, confessed Him and
asked to be remembered in His kingdom, do we think that Christ will reject us if
we approach Him with the same faith and humility right now? God is loving, merciful, kind, welcoming, and
is always waiting for us to turn to Him.
He justified the criminal in one moment and He can do the same for us.
In one moment, O Lord,
You graciously granted
paradise to the penitent thief.
Now, by the tree of
and save me.
(The Hymn of Light
from the Matins of Great Friday)
- Seminarian & Subdeacon David Mastroberte