Note from the Good Thief
Strictly speaking, Luke 23: 32, 39–43 had my story right: “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right, and one on his left.
“One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’”
And so I was—and so I am. Luke may have patched my grammar and improved my wording. Nonetheless, he had the story right. That’s what I said, that’s what Jesus said. Believe me, I’m not complaining.
But I still feel uncomfortable about the misunderstanding of exactly what I did there, hanging on that cross, just minutes—it seemed like centuries—before dying.
I’m not talking about all the fanciful legends woven around my fifteen seconds of fame. Going down in history, for instance, as the Good Thief, when thief was hardly the word for it. We didn’t just rob. We assaulted, we murdered. We weren’t just thieves. We were bandits, brigands, outlaws, and cutthroats. Revolutionaries, too—or so we liked to think. When your country is occupied, you can justify about anything.
Being whitewashed as a Good Thief was the least of it. Imaginative folks eventually made up names for me, Joathas or Dismas, the good guy on the right, and Maggatras or Gestas for the bad guy on the left. They concocted stories. It was told that as adults or maybe even as children we had crossed paths with Jesus.
But none of that had anything to do with what was written in the Gospels and especially in Luke. As I said, he had the words more or less right. It’s the interpretation that’s a problem.
Get the picture, please. We’re beaten, bloodied, and gasping for breath. People are jeering at this guy in the middle. It seems he has called himself the messiah or savior or king of the Jews, something like that. They put an inscription, “King of the Jews,” over his head. So show your stuff, they shout. Then my fellow outlaw joins in.
I tell you the truth. I had never heard of Jesus. Of messiahs, of restored kingdoms, of Davidic kings—that was different. All my life, I had heard such talk. But Jesus? He must have created a stir, gained a following, angered the authorities. Why else would he be bleeding and choking to death here between us? Beyond that, I knew nothing.
Was he the messiah, was he king of the Jews, did he have a kingdom? Or was he a poor fool? Did it matter?
When my mother was dying, I knelt next to her. She would close and open her eyes. “I see Elisha,” she would say. “I see a chariot without a horse. I see streams of water.”
“Yes, mother,” I would answer. “I think Elisha is coming. Yes, there is a horse. Yes, there are streams of water.” Did it matter?
So when the crowds jeered at this dying man and the soldiers did, too, and my comrade in crime thinks he is honoring his last minutes by adding to their taunts, well, I just couldn’t help myself.
“Jesus,” I said, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Maybe that would comfort him, dull the pain, combat the despair. Really I didn’t know.
People have thought that I was making a great confession of faith. They have said that I knew in a flash all that this man I’d never seen before had been endlessly preaching and explaining to his followers. It wasn’t like that at all.
Read Luke’s words carefully and you’ll see. It was no act of faith. It was just a bit of decency. It won me paradise all the same.
About the Author
Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.