What the Good Thief's Death Teaches Us About Life

By Michael Bradley
April 2, 2015

A few Easters ago, it seemed that the 1961 film Barabbas, which cast Anthony Quinn in the role of the released revolutionary, was always playing in my house.

The movie follows Barabbas’s life after the fateful events of Good Friday. Central to the plot is the way that Christ’s “substitution” for Barabbas continues to haunt the titular character. In this sense, Barabbas might be in good company: One often wonders what becomes of the Gospel figures whose paths cross Christ’s during the Passion. Simon of Cyrene, Pilate, the priest’s servant whose severed ear Christ heals in the Garden: How do their encounters with the Lord move them throughout life?

Today is Good Friday. As we commemorate the cross of Christ, we reflect on the darkest hour of all creation, when total love is utterly rejected by sin. Yet Golgotha also bequeaths to us an inbreaking of redemption, a bright moment on Calvary.

He is known traditionally as Saint Dismas, or some variant of the name—it dates back to as early as the fourth century. The “good thief” is perhaps the most enigmatic of the compelling Passion characters. No contemporaneous or near-contemporaneous extra-canonical sources attest to his life. We do not know his name, or whether he had even heard of Christ prior to that hour.

What do we know of the good thief?

Each of the four Gospels attests that Christ was crucified with two others, one on either side of him. Luke calls these simply “criminals,” noting that they were led away from the praetorium with Christ.

In Mark and Matthew these men are called “revolutionaries,” the same Greek word that John uses to describe Barabbas. The editors of the New American Bible comment of this label that it could signify a “guerrilla warrior fighting for nationalistic aims, though the term can also denote a robber.” Luke 23:19 informs us that “Barabbas had been imprisoned for a rebellion that had taken place in the city and for murder,” Mark tells us that Barabbas was “in prison along with the rebels who had committed murder in a rebellion” (15:7), and the label “thief” is not actually present in any of the Passion accounts. We may safely conclude that the “thieves” crucified with Jesus were violent revolutionaries against the Roman state (crucifixion was a Roman, not Jewish, punishment) and very likely murderers.

We know that both thieves mocked Christ as they hung on Calvary. Mark reports that “those who were crucified with him also kept abusing him” (15:32), and Matthew reports the same (27:44). The crowds and priests were tempting Christ to take himself down off the cross, challenging him to “make good” on his blasphemous presumptions. Were the thieves doing the same? Were they taunting Christ, not unlike Satan in the desert, to demonstrate his mighty power? Yet Christ’s silence conveys what he had promised earlier: “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet” (Mt 12:39), referring to his own three-day descent into darkness.

One of the thieves explicitly asks Christ not only to save himself, but to save them as well. Notice that his request is different from the crowd’s. The thief is interested in Christ’s power only insofar as it benefits him: “Save yourself and us” (my emphasis, Lk 23:39). For the crowd, Christ’s power is invoked to remove the burden of faith, to obviate the act of faith.  For the thief, Christ’s power is invoked for self-preservation. Neither demand comes from humility; both come from superiority, a position of judgment and authority.

Then, remarkably, the second thief evidently experiences a change of heart. Remember that he too had been “abusing” Christ. But now he chastises his former compatriot—his former fellow visionary, a friend and conspirator with whom he had bonded as they plotted their uprising, reveling in the close intimacy of partners who are convicted of the goodness of their cause and for whom death is preferable to maintenance of the status quo. The good thief “rebukes” his former partner, saying: “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 says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:40-42).

Heretofore Christ is not recorded as having responded to either the crowd or the bad thief. But he turns instantly to the good thief and engages him directly. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

And we hear no more from the good thief. Yet we know that he outlived his savior. When the soldiers come to break Christ’s legs, they find him already dead, and so do not break them.  But they “broke the legs of the first and then of the other one who was crucified with Jesus” (Jn 19:32), signaling that the thieves were still alive. Saint Dismas was alive when Christ breathed his last, when he lifted his eyes to heaven and groaned to his absent Father.

How might Dismas have felt, watching his savior die right before his eyes? Did the other thief, too, eventually repent, not only shaken by Christ’s example but stirred by his former companion’s? Was Dismas a convert and a catalyst for conversion?

We might identify with St. Dismas. Like him, we stubbornly entrench ourselves in our sins, knowing but not admitting that acknowledging them and the justice of their repercussions entails a humble turn: conversion. The bad thief is not yet willing to face the music; even as he hangs dying, he is focused on his own self-preservation. He equates his situation with the innocent man’s beside him: “We’re not really different, him and me.” He will not admit that “the game is up,” the game of his inverted self-love.

The good thief was the same way—for a time. But something changed. Perhaps he noticed Christ’s silence in the face of the mockery, the spitting, the lewd soldiers casting lots for his garments. Perhaps he was struck by that silence, just as it perturbed an uneasy Pilate and enraged Caiaphas. Perhaps he had been coaxed into the revolution in the first place, and only needed the good example of one witness to shake him from his sinful stupor.

Although the Catholic Church has never formally canonized him, we remember St. Dismas every year on March 25, a date on which we celebrate another “yes” to Christ’s presence in one’s life. Like Mary, Dismas is a human figure whose story captures elements common and integral to our own, someone of whom we should avail ourselves in prayer, as an imitable figure of humility and repentance.

Saint Dismas, pray for us!

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the Irish Rover on 4/2 and is reprinted with permission.