Fr Billy Swan
‘One of the criminals hanging there abused him: ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us as well’. But the other spoke up and rebuked him. ‘Have you no fear of God at all?’ he said. ‘You got the same sentence as he did, but in our case we deserved it, we are paying for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong’. Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’. He answered him: ‘Truly I say to you, this day you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:39-43).
This is one of my favourite passages from the whole New Testament. As he was dying, Jesus offers forgiveness to a thief in a measure beyond what he could have hoped for. The exchange between Jesus and the thief on the cross speaks of an encounter between Jesus and a repentant, broken sinner. It speaks of great hope and a great mercy that is offered to all, especially to those who need it most, right until we take our last breath. After Jesus was conceived, an angel appeared to Joseph who assured him that the child born to Mary must be called ‘Jesus’ because ‘he is the one who is to save his people from their sins’ (Matt. 1:21). Jesus’ name reveals his mission: to save us from sin. Here as he was dying, his mission continued right up to the very end when he saved the good thief from his sins and promised him paradise that very day.
We notice the difference between what the good thief asks for and what he receives. As a condemned man, he asks Jesus simply to remember him in his kingdom. He knew he had done wrong, he acknowledged his guilt and expressed his sorrow. He would soon die but before he did, he turned in hope to the one who was innocent and asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. Nothing could have prepared him for the words that followed. Not only did Jesus promise him that he would be remembered but that he was forgiven - totally and completely, there and then. But that was not all. Jesus went further to promise him paradise that very day. What divine generosity, what abundant and reckless outpouring of forgiveness that goes beyond what we could possible hope for! But this is how it always is with God. The measure of his gifts are not the same as ours. We give to one another in proportion to what is asked. Not so with God. Once we are sincere in our sorrow and faith then God’s response always exceeds what we hope for. Sorrow for sin is never too late; wrongdoing never so great that forgiveness will be refused. We must never despair or give up hope because of what Jesus offers the good thief. The Lord wants us more than we ever wanted him, or ever could.
There are two moving reflections on the encounter between Jesus and the good thief that I conclude with here. The first was in a funeral homily I heard of a person who had died by suicide. In his words of consolation, the priest was commenting on this Gospel encounter between Jesus and the good thief. The priest explained: ‘If the good Lord was this merciful with a thief and a robber, how much more merciful he will be to this young man who has died’.
The second reflection is by an ancient author who wrote an imaginary dialogue between Jesus and the good thief on the cross. The author questions the thief as to how he could have recognised the Lord in his agony when so many others remained blind to him. To which the thief replies: ‘At a certain moment, in my pain and isolation, I found Jesus looking at me and in that look of mercy and compassion, I understood everything’.
Merciful Father, may I never doubt your love for me. Like the good thief, in your Son Jesus, may I see my own need for mercy and recognise your abundant goodness in giving it to me and to all. In moments of torment, may I turn to you Lord Jesus and find in you a compassionate friend who gives me more than I ask and who looks at me with a gaze full of love in which I understand everything.