So many sermons preached on this second word of Christ from the Cross revolve around the “good thief who stole heaven.” And so, they often miss the point because the focus is blurred.
St. Luke wants us to fix our gaze on two characters, but in proper order: first, the Speaker; second, the one addressed.
In His last moments on earth, Jesus makes a commitment with eternal consequences. As He hangs in agony, He holds out an offer which continues the pattern of His life; He claims thereby to have a unique entrée to everlasting life. In fact, He is dying for this very reason. Therefore, we need to consider some alternatives about His identity: This convicted criminal is insane; He is the blasphemer He’s accused of being; or, He’s the Son of God that He claimed to be. St. Luke and other Evangelists believed the last alternative and wrote their Gospels to bring others to that same faith. We are the beneficiaries of that tradition. There is no other alternative for us, either.
Because Jesus is the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, His promise to the good thief has significance. God is as good as His Word. The ancient Hebrews had a highly developed understanding of the word; any word was a part of the speaker, now with an independent existence. That applied equally to good words and bad words. Just think of poor old and blind Isaac deceived into blessing Jacob. However, once the word of blessing was uttered (ill-gotten as it was), it could not be recalled.
God’s Word is as omnipotent as He, for through it the work of creation was accomplished: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Ps 33:6). If God can create everything from nothing, He can save the good thief.
Now, this offer by Christ was not a special “one-day sale”; He gives the same opportunity to every one of the Father’s adopted children in Baptism. The promise of salvation is nothing less than the promise of the Gospel. “This day” is a sign of the immediacy of the gift, so that we do not find ourselves waiting for the experience of justification, redemption or salvation at the end of time; we receive it and live it “this day.”
The battle for our souls was fought on Calvary. The Devil lost, and so we won. It sounds so simple, too good to be true. Efforts to complicate the message and to condition its power fail to take God at His Word, which informs us that He wants all men to be saved (cf. 1 Tm 2:4).
Preachers who suggest that Dismas (as tradition speaks of him) “stole heaven” do not do justice to the gratuity of salvation. For in a sense, we all “steal heaven” because none of us is worthy to behold the face of God. The dying thief did, however, have certain qualities which provided fertile soil for God’s Word to take root.
First of all, he had the tremendous gift of self-knowledge. Some people go through life believing their own public relations material. The thief, on the other hand, was bitterly aware of his own sinfulness: “We deserve it, after all. We are only paying the price for what we’ve done” (Luke 24:41). What extraordinary honesty and maturity! No blame shunted off onto bad parental example or a deprived childhood. With the Psalmist, he could say: “For I acknowledge my offense, and my sin is before me always: ‘Against you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight’ – That you might be justified in your sentence, vindicated when you condemn” (Ps 51:5-6).
Second, Dismas did not measure himself by the evil of others: “You know, we live in a society where ‘everyone’ steals and cheats, if only given the opportunity. I just got caught.” Rather, he took as his yardstick the holiness of God: “This man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 24:41). His words and underlying attitude reflect those of another Lucan figure who could say, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (cf. Luke 24:41).
Third, all of his behavior on the cross proves him to be a man open to the workings of grace. Therefore, it does not surprise us to hear him plead: “Jesus, remember me when you enter upon your reign” (Luke 23:42). He was already to hear the promise: “This day you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
What does all of this have to do with us, most of whom are not thieves and none of whom would ever be crucified for the crime anyway? We have been allowed by Luke to eavesdrop on a conversation which teaches valuable lessons on how we are saved. We learn that God can save us and wants to do so. We discover that He is willing to wipe clean the whole slate. What do we have to do in return? Believe God and live in His love.
“You mean I don’t have to do anything?” comes the incredulous reply. I didn’t say that – I said we must believe God, taking Him at His word. That realization makes the entire faith-works controversy of the Protestant Reformation a meaningless discussion. We are not saved by good works or without them. We are saved by faith, a faith which necessarily expresses itself in love. And that’s how the experience of salvation can be known right now – with no waiting for a day of judgment. As St. Thérèse of Lisieux put it, “All the way to heaven is heaven.”
A believer doesn’t try to rack up “brownie points,” maneuvering God into a corner, “forcing” Him to grant salvation through human manipulation. A heartfelt believer trusts God’s promise and loves Him as the only appropriate response. What lover does not desire intensely to do good for the beloved? But this is surely not as a means of gaining an advantage in the relationship, for that would be neither love, nor trust, nor faith. No, the person of faith stands in the tradition of Dismas who was prepared to hear the promise of the Gospel and, as a result, began a whole line of Christian “thieves” who have “stolen” heaven ever since.
(Editor’s note: This is the second of seven reflections by Fr. Stravinskas on the Seven Last Words, leading up to Good Friday. They were originally preached on Good Friday 2017 at the “Tre Ore” at Holy Innocents Church, Manhattan.)
• “Seven Last Words from the Cross: ‘Father, forgive them…’” (March 23, 2018)
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