A Tale of Two Thieves
Our Attitude to Jesus Matters
The way we approach Jesus with our wants and needs plays a critical role in how we build up a relationship with God.
If we only come to God asking Him for favors – without thanking Him for the good things we've already received or without loving God for Who He is regardless of what gifts He has lavished us with, then we will find that we don't have deep roots of faith.
Instead, we're coming to God out of love of use as opposed to genuine devotion. And where faith is weak, prayer will wane in its content and falter in its hope. Examples of both a good supplication and a bad supplication come from a certain scene in the Passion narrative.
My mind keeps returning to the second Gospel we got to hear on Palm Sunday, a lengthy reading ripe with seeds for bountiful meditation.
The end of the Passion draws near, and we witness the reactions of the two criminals hanging on crosses of their own on either side of Jesus, as St. Luke records. The men we traditionally call the Good Thief (or St. Dismas) and the Bad Thief acquired their titles based on the different ways they interacted with the Crucified Lord.
St. Luke's account reads:
Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:39-43, NAB).
First, the Bad Thief chimes in with the crowd and mockingly beseeches the Lord. He taunts Him. His tone doesn't imply true faith. He questions the power and Person of Jesus Christ. It is not as though he struggles with faith; he flat-out rejects it.
Perhaps he has heard about the carpenter's Son who goes around healing folks and raising people from the dead. His interest in Jesus, if there was any valid interest, was for his own mortal wellbeing. He could care less about Who Jesus was. Furthermore, he makes Jesus's true identity the butt of a snide remark. This only proves he is like so many of the soldiers, elders, and other onlookers gawking at the gory spectacle.
Second is the Good Thief, who – realizing that almost any breath could well be his last – replies to the other criminal that he should seek genuine faith. He should have the “fear of God,” Who shall be his Judge. What is more, observes the crucified saint, the Bad Thief is subject to the same fate as Jesus and himself. Yet, the Good Thief doesn't put all the blame on his counterpart; he freely admits his own guilt. He is guilty of his crimes. He knows he has sinned.
But then come the boldest words from the lips of St. Dismas: “But this man has done nothing criminal.” And to Jesus: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Unlike the other thief, this second man owns his faults, admits that Jesus is totally different (an innocent man without sin), and asks for the mercy and love of God – not for deliverance from pain or for a cure-all to the torments of crucifixion – but for a share in the Kingdom of God. And Jesus promises him just that.
Regardless of whether we think the world revolves around us or not, the truth remains unchanged: Jesus Christ hangs on the Cross at the center of everything. We are on one side of that Cross or the other. Either, we dismiss Jesus in our hearts and reject His sacrifice. Or we, though sinners, approach Jesus, recognize His divine and inviolate nature, and ask for mercy. Let's pray and strive to always be more like the Good Thief.