Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23: 42)
He was a criminal. Some translations of the Bible specify him as a thief. Tradition even gives him a name: Dismas. Whatever his name or his crime, he ended up with a chunk of wood secured to his back, struggling up a hill outside the walls of Jerusalem and, like so many before and after him, was striped, nailed to the wood he bore and left to die a humiliating death.
In the eyes of the Romans, this man and his companion were human refuse, a problem that had to be crushed as a sign to all that no one escaped Roman justice, and no one would be allowed to upset the Pax Romana, the Roman peace. But there was a third criminal that day, an agitator from the boonies of the Galilee district of Palestine. He claimed kingship for himself, even though everyone with sense recognized the kingship of Caesar as the only legitimate authority. And so, for being a treasonous troublemaker, this wandering rabbi was also being crucified. And since he was supposedly a king, this thorn-crowned messiah would have the center cross, pride of place.
Perhaps, amid spasms of pain and growing despair, the “good thief” wondered why so much hatred seemed to be directed toward this man next to him. What had he really done to earn the insults and jeers hurled at him? He heard them shout something about “messiah” and “savior,” but he did not fully understand. The criminal at the far end had joined in the taunts, in between his own curses and screams. Yet the rabbi made no sounds except gasps and moans while straining for breath. Why was he just taking it? Why did he not stand up for himself?
For whatever reason, this good thief spoke up for the silent, suffering man. He told the taunting prisoner to leave the rabbi alone. After all, they had earned the pain they were enduring. But this man, hanging between them was, as far as he could tell, innocent of any wrongdoing. Then, prodded by some kind of inner need, he turned to the rabbi and said only one thing,
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And through cracked lips, with gasps for air, he heard this response,
“I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
“Remember me,” not “free me,” “liberate me,” or even “strengthen me.” Simply “remember.” What the good thief did not know, or had forgotten, is that God can never forget us. We are always on God’s mind (apologies to Willie Nelson), and if God were to stop thinking about us, we would cease to be. Even when we forget about God and wander into other flocks and darkened valleys that cause us frustration, loneliness and suffering of all kinds, God is there, God’s voice gently calling us back to ourselves, back to him. When we leave God, in a real sense we leave paradise, as much of paradise as we can experience this side of the grave. When the thief asked Jesus to remember him, Jesus’ response was a reminder to all of us that, with Jesus at our side, with Jesus as our Friend, Confidant, Beloved and Savior, paradise is there also. If truly “the kingdom of heaven is close at hand,” perhaps it is as close as a heartfelt plea, a request for mercy, a longing for healing, a willingness to return to an embrace that is always awaiting us. We simply have to have sense enough to accept God’s embrace and to rest in it.
The good thief went beyond the horrid pain of his situation and turned his eyes to Jesus – and was set free. Perhaps this day finds you being crucified by a situation of your own making, or by one that is out of your control. You have a choice: you can rant and rave and curse and scream your way into deepening depression and frustration, or you can turn your eyes to the crucified, innocent rabbi from Nazareth, and ask him to mercifully remember you in this time of need. Do so, and be ready to hear, in tones strong and lovingly reassuring, “My beloved one, this day, with me, you will be in paradise.”
Tom Yeshua is the pen name of Thomas E.L. Cloutier OFS, a transitional deacon who taught theology for 30 years at Nashua (N.H.) Catholic Regional Junior High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Don Bosco College in Newton, N.J., and a master’s in divinity and theology from St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Mass.