Divine Mercy Sunday, 19.04.20
A meditation on
The “Good Thief”, Saint Dismas
- Did Dismas know Jesus before the Passion? One tradition says that, during the flight to Egypt, Dismas as a young robber convinced his fellow-robbers not to rob the Holy Family. It is said that Mary recognised him on Calvary and prayed for his conversion…. Who knows?! It’s certainly likely that Dismas would have heard of Jesus during the public ministry. Jesus was well-known “all over the Judean countryside” as the Gospel tells us. Maybe he had even listened to him and felt strangely interested in him. But old habits dying hard, he pursued his “career” and ended up being executed on the same day as Jesus. The Gospel says that the two thieves were “led out with Jesus” to be crucified. That could suggest that they had spent the night on death row together. Might there have been exchanges during that night by which something began to move in the soul of Dismas? Who knows?
- What is certain is that Dismas will have seen and heard something of the various events and people involved on the Way of the Cross. Just how much of it, we can’ say. Nor can we know what impact it had on Dismas’ mind and heart in relation to Jesus. He will have seen Mary, Simon of Cyrene and the women all weeping for Jesus. He will have heard his words to the women, “weep not for me” and probably wondered what he could mean by them. He will also have heard the various words of Jesus on the Cross, “Father forgive them”, “Woman, behold your son”, “I thirst”, etc..
- Two of the Gospels tell us that both thieves mocked Jesus. We can only conclude, therefore, that the conversion of Dismas to believe in Jesus happened rather suddenly after they had both been crucified and at some point after Dismas’ initial mockery of Jesus and before his words of rebuke to the bad thief, known as Gesmas. What could have moved Dismas from mocking Jesus one minute to confessing his faith in him the next? It could have been a series of things: 1) the gradual and dawning impact of Jesus’ words and example on him; 2) the prayer of Jesus for him as for everyone else near the Cross; 3) the prayer of Mary for him; 4) Jesus’ spectacular words of forgiveness and intercession for his executioners; 5) the realization he was about to die and the focus which that would bring to his mind about what was really important; 6) perhaps the very abuse Jesus was getting from everyone there made him think, “there must be something to this Jesus if everyone hates him for no apparent reason”; and 7) perhaps, despite his lifestyle, there was a remnant core of goodness in him from his early life which was reawakened, drawn out by the meekness and mercifulness and divine attraction of the Lamb of God.
- The words of Dismas in the Gospel are usefully compared with those of Gesmas, the bad thief. The two were on either side of Jesus. Jesus listens carefully to the words, silences and hearts of both men. Luke’s Gospel records that Gesmas blasphemes by saying to Jesus, “If you are the Christ.” In other words, he doesn’t believe in Jesus. (Recall that Satan repeatedly tempted Jesus by first asking, “If you are the Son of God”, i.e. “can you be sure that you are?”) He puts Jesus to the test like everyone else there, “save yourself and us, too.” This means: “even if you are really the Christ, use your power the way I tell you, to save our skins.” Even then, he was trying to rob, but this time to rob Jesus of his power and use it for himself.
- Jesus says nothing but Dismas defends Jesus to Gesmas, “have you no fear of God at all?” These words mean first of all that Dismas recognised Jesus as God and that Gesmas, even facing death, was showing no fear of God’s judgment. By implication, Gesmas had no faith in God at all and had no belief in any after-life. If he had, he would have behaved differently. His sole concern was for the present. Dismas then goes on to make a series of astonishing remarks. First, he says that Jesus is being condemned unjustly because he has done nothing wrong. He thus condemns to their face the Jewish authorities standing there for their corrupt judgment and incredulity. With these same words, Dismas also confesses the sinlessness of Jesus, and only God is without sin. At the same time, Dismas confessed his own sin – “we got what we deserved” – and does so with immense humility both before Jesus and before the crowd. As if that weren’t enough, Dismas says directly to Jesus that Jesus is a king, thus roundly contradicting the Roman authorities, whilst making the very moving plea, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Remember me! How poignant are these words on the lips of a dying man, of someone whom society has rejected and will soon forget. Dismas also confesses, as Jesus himself had said to Pilate, that his kingdom is not of this world.
- Then come some of the most consoling words in the whole of the Scriptures: “Amen, I say to you, you will today be with me in paradise.” Those words, “amen, I say to you” Jesus only ever used when making very solemn statements about himself, about the will of the Father and about the divine truth. In other words, Dismas was being given a divine guarantee in person that today he would be with Jesus in his kingdom, that kingdom being paradise.
- Dismas will then have heard all the other words of consolation and mercy and prayer uttered by Jesus before Jesus died. Dismas died after him, because the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus was already dead when the soldiers came to break the legs of the two thieves. True to his word, at the moment of Dismas’ death, Jesus will have welcomed him into paradise.
- What we see in Dismas is a process of conversion brought about by his contact with the suffering and crucified Jesus. The process begins gradually, his mockery of Jesus at first seems like a last ditched attempt to resist Jesus but then the resistance collapses and he believes. One of the last things Dismas may have seen and heard was the soldier lancing the side of Jesus, and the blood and water spurting forth. Dismas found himself facing death because of his sins, the cumulative failures of responsibility throughout his life. At first, even then, he was foolhardy in mocking Jesus, but as he saw how Jesus acted and reacted and how Jesus spoke or did not speak, the shadows began to lift from his soul and the light of truth, the light of divine mercy filled him instead. It made him a defender of truth and justice, a humble confessor of his sins, a believer in the sinless divinity of Jesus and in the kingdom of paradise and its king. It made him a witness, a martyr even, before the incredulous Jewish and Roman authorities. It made him a friend and beloved disciple of Jesus.
- It’s not so much the fact that this all happened at the last minute for Dismas that makes him an example for all of us. There’s nothing virtuous in waiting until the last minute before turning our sinful hearts and souls to Jesus. What makes him an inspiring example is how his life was changed through contact with the Cross, with the suffering and death of Jesus. It demonstrated the mysterious power of the Cross and of the Crucified Christ to reach us if we trustingly approach his Cross and his sufferings, especially when we ourselves are suffering either because of our own sins or because of those of others. The paradox is that where we are most hurting, most downcast, most bereft of hope and meaning, there precisely is to be found the greatest solace, comfort, healing and hope by joining ourselves to the Crucified Lord. Where Dismas was, was a difficult place to be , but it was the best place to be, as he quickly discovered. St. Paul himself wanted to be crucified with Christ because it was the guarantee of knowing most fully the love and life and glory of the Lord. Before the blood and water flowed from the side of Jesus, they had already flowed into the heart of Dismas. O that I, O that we, had Dismas’ faith! O that he, along with Jesus, may one day receive us into Paradise!