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Fr Billy Swan

I remember the weeks and days before my Father died in November 2011. As his strength gradually ebbed away and as he became weaker, he said less and less. But on the occasions when he did speak, we listened with as much attentiveness as we could and to this day, we remember some of the last words he spoke. Every sentence was full of meaning, no word was wasted as he spoke to us from the sacred space he was in: between life and death and on the threshold between this world and the next.

For Jesus’ disciples, it was the same. As he entered his passion and died on the cross, Jesus was also in that sacred space, standing between us and the Father, between life and death as he spoke to us from that holy place. These were his last and most beautiful words that summed up what his whole life was about: a life totally committed to the Father and to us whom he loved. These are his ‘seven last words’. Let us listen to them again.


‘Now they were also leading out two others, criminals, to be executed with him. When they reached the place called The Skull, there they crucified him and the two criminals, one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, 'Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing' (Luke 23:34)

To understand how great is his forgiveness we first pause to consider how great was the wrong done to him. They had unjustly condemned him to death; they had scourged him and lacerated his body; they had crowned him with thorns, mocked him, spat at him. Now as they nailed him to the cross he begged his Father to forgive them. Here with the cross, we see humanity at its worst: man’s inhumanity to man, the cruelty that we inflict on each other and that we see all too often. But as humanity descended to its worst, God’s power is seen at its best with his forgiveness: that despite everything, he is prepared to forgive, to make excuses for us so that we might be pardoned: ‘they do not know what they do’. Here is a divine generosity that is prepared to go much further to relieve us of the burden of guilt, to excuse and to understand. It would seem the soldiers were in fact, fully aware of what they were doing. Their actions are to be condemned and they must be held responsible. Yet Jesus loved those soldiers as he loves us and forgives while ignoring questions that we ask. We insist that someone must be accountable, someone is to blame, someone must pay. But for our Lord, he prays: ‘they do not know what they are doing’. Here is forgiveness that the world has never know that flows from the strength of his love for us: the love of a God who will look for every reason to forgive and to understand.

Is there a message from God that could possibly be more welcome than the gift of his forgiveness? Were there ever words so sweet for those weighed down by guilt and sin? For all of us, there are always the memories of foolishness and weakness from the past that come back to trouble us. But when they do, let us listen to the gentle voice within us: ‘Father, forgive them’. The soldiers had not asked for forgiveness and yet Jesus asks it for them. How much more then will it be given to us who ask for it? We must never doubt that we can be forgiven when we ask for mercy. Forgiveness is a beautiful part of God’s nature and is the faithful companion of our sorrow. Jesus only asks us for this: that he looks into our hearts and finds sorrow there for any wrong that we have done, for in the words of the Psalm: ‘a humble contrite heart O Lord you will not spurn’.

Lord Jesus, your dying wish for my forgiveness reveals the depth of your love. Deepen my belief in your love and give me the faith to know that I am forgiven and healed by your passion.


‘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.


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