There they crucified him and with him two others, one on each side and Jesus in the Middle’ (John. 19, 18).

Looking at the three crosses of Calvary, we are able to reflect upon our attitude to our own crosses and the consequences if we

  • reject it, as the Bad Thief,
  • accept it, as the Good Thief or
  • embrace it with Jesus.

The Bad Thief rejects the cross and no doubt he suffers both in his body and in his soul. He bears the same torture as his companion; his feet and his hands are nailed to the cross, as were the feet and hands of Jesus and he suffers the same slow death. He suffers in his flesh and he suffers in his soul.

He is on his cross and longs to get off: ‘If you are the Christ, save yourself and us with you’ (Lk. 23, 39). He feels that everything is failing him. In his despair he blasphemes God and curses everybody around him. Yes, he suffers. No rest for his body; no peace for his heart. He suffers without humility. His crimes, he knows them well, yet he does not consider himself guilty. ‘Why do I have to suffer?’ His companion remarks on his hardness of heart – ‘You do not even fear God’ (Lk. 23,40).

The Bad Thief suffers without faith. He sees the patience and the meekness of Jesus, but it is not enough to open his eyes. He throws Jesus the challenge, ‘If you are the Christ, save yourself and us with you’ (Lk. 23,29). As if to say, ‘If you really were the Messiah, you would work a miracle; you would save yourself and you would save me.’

This is the call of those who don’t believe and demand a miracle in order to believe: a miracle of their own choosing.

This was the call of the soldiers, who were mocking Jesus, while standing on guard: ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself’ (Lk. 23, 27).

It was the call of the chiefs of the people, who taunted their victim: ‘If he is the king of Israel, let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him’ (Mr. 27,42).

It was the call of the Devil: ‘If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread’ (Mr. 4, 23).

How could he be the Messiah, the Son of God, and yet so powerless to save himself? The Messiah? Let him first get himself out of this, before claiming to save others.

he Bad Thief suffers and suffers without faith. Moreover he suffers without hope. He does not think of Heaven nor does he desire it. The only thing he is interested in continuing to live, to escape from Death. (‘Save yourself and us with you’). He asks to escape from suffering, to escape from death. He does not know and he does not desire anything beyond the things of his world, his present life.

Effectively he is in hell already as already he has no hope and therefore must suffer without hope. He also must suffer without charity, without love of God or neighbour.

 

On top of that not only does he refuse to accept his punishment humbly, as being God’s will, but he tries to get Jesus to reject the will of His Father, just as the Devil had tried at the Temptation in the desert, as the Devil tried again through the mouths of the chief priests and of the soldiers: ‘If he is the king of Israel, let him come down from the cross.’

The Bad Thief makes the same diabolical suggestion: ‘If you are the Messiah, save yourself.’ Nor does he have any respect for the man dying at his side. With the crowd and the soldiers, he mocks Jesus: ‘He saved others and cannot save himself’ (Mr. 27, 42). Even when dying, the Bad Thief insults a dying man and thus he suffers without charity.

So what were the results of all his taunting? The Bad Thief’s rebellion gained him nothing. His punishment was not taken away: his suffering continued, they were not diminished and he died like his companions.

In fact the Bad Thief’s rebellion hardened his sin, his pride and his hatred. He died desperate and probably was finally damned as he died at Jesus’s side. In short the Bad Thief’s rebellion gained him nothing and lost him everything.

Is it not awful to think that Our Lord did not address a single word to him?

Jesus who calls sinners to salvation, who tried to move the heart of Judas in his very act of treason (‘Friend, for what did you come?’ – Mt. 26, 50);

Jesus, who on the cross continued to ask forgiveness for those who killed him;

Jesus has nothing to say to the Bad Thief who then suffers and dies rejecting his cross, losing his life, losing his soul and is damned for eternity.

How different the scene on the other side, for the Good Thief accepts his Cross.

Certainly the Good Thief suffers, but while there is no rest for his body, a deep peace fills his soul. A sad ending in the eyes of men, but not in God’s sight for the Good Thief accepts his cross with humility.

Listen: ‘For us it is justice, for we are receiving what our deeds deserved; but this man has done nothing wrong’ (Lk. 23, 41). He recognises his crimes; he confesses them publicly (certainly everybody knows them, but he still could have pretended to be innocent; he accepts full responsibility; he places himself far below Jesus, who has done nothing but good, while he has committed crimes enough to merit death. What a lesson for us!

His faith is more wonderful still when one considers that he had not followed Jesus during three years as the apostles did. He did not hear all His teachings, witness His miracles, been present at the resurrection of Lazarus, received Holy Communion, as they had; and yet his faith is more enlightened, more firm and more pure than theirs for the apostles ran from the cross. The Good Thief however couldn’t run he had to suffer it. He could only reject it or receive it and he chose to receive his cross.

Just listen to him: ‘Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (Lk. 23, 24). He saw Jesus as a King on the cross. This Jesus hanging there, naked and mocked by all, dying a pitiful death. What an act of faith. Even on the Cross, he saw Jesus as King. Do we see Jesus in our suffering as our King? The Good Thief sees the patience of Jesus; has heard him praying for his enemies. It is enough to convince him, he believes.

The Good Thief believes, while all the wise men and the doctors of Israel remain blind. He believes when Jesus’ closest friends run from the cross. The apostles all doubted, they lost hope, their faith had not been strong enough to withstand the scandal of the death of Jesus. What then was the strength of this thief’s faith?

The Good Thief on the cross had already understood that the Kingdom to which the dying Jesus was going was not of this world. The heart of this poor thief yearned for heaven. He no longer cared for the goods of this world; he does not ask for them. He only wants Jesus to remember him, when he comes into his Kingdom, that Jesus will find him a little corner in Paradise. The goods of this world are taken from him; he does not cling to them. He lets them go willingly but he would like the goods of heaven.

For this reason he places all his confidence in Jesus and counts only on the mercy of Jesus, who is, he feels, so infinitely good and compassionate. ‘When you come into your kingdom.’ When everything is all over for him, with no hope of escaping death, with no power on earth that could save him, he still has confidence in Jesus: he can do something to save him.

What a wonderful prayer: ‘Lord remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (Lk. 23, 42). He says very humbly, ‘Remember me.’ He is nothing but a thief, a sinner. He only says, ‘remember me,’ or, in other words, ‘have mercy on me,’ the way the publican did, who did not even dare look up on account of his sins.

While his prayer is not long, he succeeds to humbly submit to God’s will. ‘We suffer,’ he tells his companion, ‘But for us it is justice; we are receiving what our crimes deserved’ he is on the cross, he accepts it without rebellion, because he always kept the fear of God, respect for His power and His holiness. He is filled with zeal for his soul: ‘Do you not even fear God, when you are under the same sentence?’ (Lk. 23, 40).

 

What will the result of his sufferings thus accepted?

  • In the eyes of the world, he loses everything.
  • In the sight of God, he gains everything.

Obviously his earthly suffering is not taken away from him. In spite of all His love for him, on account even of this love, Jesus is going to let him suffer, He is going to let him die on the cross. But all has changed. His soul is alive with faith and hope, he will be with Jesus in short time. ‘Amen I say to you, this very day you shall be with me in paradise’ (Lk. 23, 43).

I say to you: to you, to you alone, this grace is granted, to enter with me into paradise; to be the first to enjoy the glory of heaven immediately, after your death, before all the apostles, before the Blessed Virgin, without having to wait – as did all the just of the Old Testament, the patriarchs, the kings, the prophets, St. John the Baptist, and even St. Joseph.’

What a lesson, the first to enter heaven immediately after his death is a thief! The most beautiful, the most successful, the most profitable burglar ever! What a lesson of humility. How we must avoid despising anybody. “The last shall be first” (Mt. 20, 16). How we must not rely on our own good works, but only on God’s infinite mercy like the thief who stole heaven.

Listen to Jesus: ‘this very day.’ What does it mean? ‘Your suffering, horrible as it is, will end very soon, this very day; tomorrow, tonight, and forever, rest and joy.’

This very day, right away, without going through purgatory, you are going to enter heaven, as if you had just been baptised.’ Thus suffering accepted has completely purified this soul, laden with crimes: a few hours of suffering fully accepted have erased years of sin.

Poor thief, he had not run after the cross, he had not desired it;  against his will he had been nailed to it; probably some of his old pals were there, watching his death, with some shivers of fear, pitying him for his bad luck. And yet what good luck. Suffering transformed this thief into a saint – the first who entered paradise.

How mistaken are those who think it is easy to be saved after a life of sin, through a last minute conversion like that of the Good Thief. The Good Thief had to:

  • recognise his sins,
  • renounce his past,
  • accept his cross in the present and
  • desire only the reward promised by Jesus.

At the last minute then the conditions for being saved remain the same as they always are: If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me (Mt. 16, 24).


This article can be found in Mirror 0315.