The Good Thief

Saint Dismas. We know his name by tradition. There appears to be a discrepancy in the Gospel accounts of the two thieves crucified to the right and the left of Our Savior. Saint Matthew has it that the “thieves” joined in with the Jews in reviling Our Lord, taunting Him to save Himself (and, for the thieves, their own selves) and “come down from the cross” if You are the Son of God. But Luke gives us the facts of the conversion of one of the thieves. Some of the fathers thought that the plural “thieves” was simply used for the singular as a figure of speech called synecdoche, where the whole can be applied to a part or vice versa. Other fathers, the majority, taught that the good thief converted while he was dying with Christ. It is my opinion, one that I must have read somewhere, that Dismas was converted when he heard Jesus say “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Then, too, there is a tradition that Our Lady prayed for this man’s conversion because he was one of the robbers who took pity on the Holy Family when they were traveling in Egypt to escape Herod. That is a beautiful tradition that is related in Abbe Gaume’s book The Good Thief. (available from our bookstore.)

So, to satisfy my own question regarding the inerrancy of scripture, I went to a’Lapide. I knew he would have the answer. Here, following, is his full patristic commentary on the conversion of the Good Thief as given in Saint Luke XXIII, 39-43.

Ver. 39.—And one of the malefactors which were hanged—(this one, according to tradition, hung on the left hand of Christ)—railed on Him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.

If thou be the Christ, and Saviour of the world, save Thyself and us, free us from the cross and restore us to life and liberty. Christ chose to undergo the most bitter sufferings from all classes, and to be mocked and blasphemed, not only by the scribes and Jews, but even by the robber, the companion of His punishment. This made His trial the more hard; for the robber ought to have suffered with Christ and to have taken thought for the salvation of his soul, and to have begged it of Christ; as we also should beg that we may be quiet under scoffs, derisions, and insults, and be patient in mind and silent in speech.

Ver. 40.—But the other (who is said to have hung on the right side) answering rebuked him. The Syriac says, “Dost thou not fear, no, not even from God” (etiam, non, a Deo, non tirmes tu)?—that is, the scribes and Jews are well and strong and do not fear God, and therefore scoff at Christ; but thou, who art tormented on the cross, oughtest to fear Him, lest He punish thee severely, for blaspheming His Christ so sacrilegiously. This robber showed that he not only feared God himself, for “the beginning of wisdom” (and salvation) “is the fear of the Lord” (Ecclus. i. 16), but he also exhorted his companion to the same fear. That is, Let the Jews mock at Christ; we ought to fear God, because we are in the same condemnation—the punishment of the cross, to which we are justly condemned. But Christ, who was innocent was so condemned unjustly. Again, we should rather compassionate a companion in punishment, especially if innocent, than reproach him; because we ought to prepare ourselves for death and the judgment of God, where we shall give account for our blasphemy and undergo the heavy punishment of Gehenna. In his words, “Dost thou not fear God?” he seems to allude to Christ and to confess Him to be God. As if he had said, “Fear thou the retribution of Christ, whom thou blasphemest, for He is not only man but God also.” For, that he believed this from Christ’s illumination we shall shortly see. So S. Ambrose, and Eusebius, whose words I will produce.

Ver. 41.—And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds. This was an act of profound and public confession, contrition, and repentance, by which he expiated his former sins.

But this man hath done nothing amiss. The Greek is άτοπον, which means out of harmony, unbecoming incongruous, nothing worthy of the slightest blame or reprehension. Lo! a free and public confession of, and testimony to, the innocence of Christ, given before the scribes and rulers, who had condemned Him, fearing nothing.

Ver. 42.—And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into Thy kingdom. “The heavenly and divine kingdom, to which Thou passest through the death of the cross, that shortly Thou mayest enter into it by death, and bring into it Thine elect. Wherefore I beseech Thee to bring me also into it with Thyself, and I implore of Thee pardon for all sinners, for whom I very greatly grieve. I offer to Thee, moreover, the torments of this cross, and the death upon it which I willingly undergo. To this end, I wholly resign, dedicate, and consecrate myself to Thee; I would that it were given to me to suffer these and still other torments for Thy faith and love.” These words show his living and ardent faith, hope, love, humility, patience, contrition, and other virtues.

Moraliter. Learn from this the strength, efficacy, and swiftness of the grace of Christ, by which, from the cross itself, He made a man holy, most holy. Wonderful was the conversion of S. M. Magdalene—wonderful that of S. Paul, but much more wonderful this of the thief. For S. Mary had witnessed the words and miracles, of Christ; and S. Paul had felt Him strike him from heaven; but the thief on the very cross, where Christ was suffering the infamous and atrocious death of a criminal, was converted to Him by herioc acts of faith, love, devotion, &c.

SS. Jerome, Chrysostom, Theophylact, Euthymius, on S. Matt. xxvii., Cyril of Jerusalem in his Catechetical Lectures, xiii., Origen, Tract xxxv. on S. Matt., say that this thief had first blasphemed Christ with his companion, for SS. Matt. and Mark say in the plural “the thieves reproached Him,” though SS. Augustine, Epiphanius, Anselm and others think, like Suarez, with more probability, the contrary. These think that one of them was called “the thieves” by synecdoche, for S. Luke says that one blasphemed and the other confessed. If one of them blasphemed first, so much the greater miracle that conversion by which he suddenly changed blasphemy into the confession and praise of Christ. This change of the thief was “the right hand of the High One” (Ps. cxviii. 15, 16; dextera Excelsi). It may be asked by what means he was converted. I reply,  1. Outwardly, by the example of the virtues which he discerned in Christ, namely, His singular love, by which he heard Him praying for His enemies, His patience, fortitude, religion, and all virtues. So Theophylact and Euthymius, c. 67, on S. Matt.  2. Inwardly, by the rare and almost miraculous motion and representation of God, by which he knew Christ to be innocent and the King of a higher kingdom and the supreme Lord, in whose power it was to make even a dead man happy; and therefore that He was the Messiah, the Son of God and the Saviour of the world. So S. Leo (Serm. ii. de Pass.): “What exhortation persuaded him to the faith? What teaching instilled it? What preacher kindled it? He had not seen the miracles performed previously; the healing of the sick had ceased; the giving of sight to the blind, the recalling of the dead to life, the things that were about to happen had not taken place yet, and he still confesses Christ to be the Lord, whom he saw to be a partaker of his own suffering. Hence came this gift, hence this faith received its answer.” Observe the above words, “the things that were about to happen had not taken place yet,” for they seem silently to reprove those of S. Jerome, on chap. xxvii.  S. Matt., “When the sun disappeared, and the earth was moved, and the rocks were rent, and the darkness rushed down, one thief began to believe and to confess Christ.” This opinion of S. Jerome is stated by S. Chrysostom almost in the same words, in his second Homily “On the Cross and the Thief,” and by Origen, in tract 34 on S. Matt.

But it is wonderful that these Fathers did not see that this assertion was at variance with the Gospel, because, except the darkness, the other signs happened after the death of Christ, as is clear from the gospel of S. Luke, whilst it is plain from the same gospel that the thief was converted whilst Christ was alive; for the cessation of the sun’s light, and the darkness are related by S. Luke after the conversion of the thief.  S. Cyril teaches the same as S. Leo (Cat. Lect. xiii.) saying, “What virtue illuminated thee, 0 thief? Who taught thee to love contempt, and that, when thou wast affixed to the cross? 0 light undying, lighting the darkness!” S. Augustine follows out at length the same idea (Serm. xiii. de Temp.); S. Chrysostom (Hom. de Latrone, and Serm. 1 de Cruce et Latrone). Suarez also; who adds that it was possible that the thief, before he was imprisoned, may have heard Christ preach, or have seen His miracles, or heard of them, and, perhaps, have believed in Him. S. Vincentius, in his Sermon on the Good Thief, says, that he was converted by the shadow of Christ, when the sun in its decline, and the shadow of the cross, touched him. So the shadow of S. Peter healed the sick. Acts iii. Others add that the virgin stood in the midst, between the thief and Christ, and obtained this grace for him, and that Christ showed Himself to him when he was dying, his truly crucified, as they who are crucified are shown to the people. Add, that he saw the heavens and the earth darkened, and the day changed into night, because of the Cross and death of its Creator.

The extraordinary holiness of this thief appears from his great faith, hope, and love. Faith by which he believed in Christ as the king of kings, though he saw him as the vilest, of men, nay as a crucified thief. Hope, by which he sought from Christ to be admitted into His kingdom. Love, by which he rebuked the blasphemy of his companion. He openly confessed, and defended the innocence of Christ against the Jews and His most bitter enemies, when all the others, even the Apostles themselves, fled for fear and deserted Him. His confession, therefore, was heroic. S. Greg. (xviii. Moral. chap. 13): “On the cross, the nails fastened his hands and feet, and nothing of him remained free from punishment, but his heart and tongue. God inspired him to offer the whole to Him, of that which he found free in himself, to believe with his heart to righteousness, and to confess with his lips to salvation. In the hearts of the faithful there are, as the Apostle testifies, three chief virtues, faith, hope, and charity, all of which the thief, filled with sudden grace, both received and preserved on the cross.”

S. Augustine (Serm. de Feria 3, Of the Pasch; and Book 1 On the Soul and its Origin, chap. 9): “To this faith I know not what can be added. If they trembled who saw Christ raise the dead, he believed who saw Him hanging with himself on the cross. Assuredly Christ found not so great faith in Israel, nay, in the whole world.” “Before he asked any thing for himself, he laboured to benefit his companion. This was a mark of singular charity.” S. Chrysostom. Some in fact call this thief a martyr, like S. Cyprian in his letter to Fabian, and assert him to have been baptized in His own blood. He repeats the same in his Serms. de Cœna and de Passione—where he says, “The thief by his confession on the cross, not only merited indulgence, but was made the companion of Christ, and was sent before Him to Paradise, and made a sharer of His kingdom by confession, and a partner of martyrdom.” S. Augustine refers to these words of S. Cyprian, Lib. i. On the Soul and its Origin, and Lib. iv. On Baptism, chap. 22, where he says, “The thief had no need of baptism or martyrdom, but was saved by his contrition alone.” He had said before “that although the thief did not die for Christ, yet his death was of equal avail with God (because he confessed the Lord crucified) as if he had been crucified for Him, and so the measure of martyrdom was found in him who believed in Christ when they who were to be martyrs fell away.”

S. Augustine again (serm. 120 De Tempore): “The thief was not yet called, but was already an elect—he was not yet of the household, but he was a friend—not a disciple, but a master—and, from a thief, a confessor; for although punishment had commenced in the thief it was perfected in the martyr.” De anima et ejus orig. cap. 9: “The robber ranked as highly for his confession of his crucified Lord as if he had been martyred for Him.” S. Jerome (Ep. 13 to Paulinus). “The thief changed the cross for paradise, and made the punishment of his murder, martyrdom.” Drogo, Bishop of Ostia (Tract. de Sac. Dom. Pass. tom. ii. Bibliothica SS. Patrum), calls him “martyr.” Some assert as a probable reason of his martyrdom, that the Jews hearing his confession of Christ, by which he condemned their deeds and their judgment on Christ, were so stirred up by anger against him as to break his legs, as the Gospel relates, and to make his death more speedy and painful, and in the end to make him a martyr. And S. Hilary (lib. ii. de Trin.) calls him a martyr. “He promised to His martyr paradise—His martyr, that is, His witness, because the thief on the cross bore testimony to his own faith and hope in Christ, or he would not have been properly and precisely a martyr, because he suffered for his own sins, and not for Christ: unless, as I have already suggested, we say that the Jews aggravated and accelerated his death, because of his confession.”

Lastly, the Abbot Arnaldes or Renald (Tract 29 on the Seven words of Christ on the Cross, in the Bibliotheca SS. Patrum), asserts that the thief was carried up into the heavens, and possessed a seat above all angels and above all cherubim and seraphim, even the throne of Lucifer himself. See Stephen Binettus’ Book on the Good Thief, where he calls him “The Archangel of Paradise, the first-born son of the crucified Christ, the martyr, the apostle and preacher of the whole world, who, from his chair of the cross, preached Christ to the whole world.” “Paul,” he said, preached like the cherubim, the thief loved as the seraphim.” Hear now the praises of the fathers of him.

S. Chrysostom (Homily on the Cross and the Thief): “The thief purchased salvation from the tree. This thief stole the heavenly empire, he used compulsion to Majesty.” And below, “We find no one before the thief to have merited the promise of paradise, not Abraham, not Isaac, not Jacob, not Moses, not the Prophets or Apostles, but before all we find the thief.” He then compares the faith of the thief to that of Abraham, Isaac, Ezekiel, Moses, and this because he believed in Him, not in the temple, nor on His throne, nor in His glory, but as He was on the cross and in torments. “He sees Him,” he says, “in torments and adores Him as if He were in glory. He sees Him on the cross and prays to Him as if He were sitting in heaven. He sees Him and he calls upon Him, hailing Him as King of kings, saying, ‘Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom.’ Thou seest one crucified and thou callest Him a King, thou seest Him hanging on a tree and thou thinkest of the kingdoms of the heavens. 0 wonderful conversion of a thief!”

S. Ambrose (serm. 45). “It is the more to his grace and praise that he believed in Christ on the cross; and the suffering which was a scandal to others, availed to him for faith. Rightly then did he purchase paradise who thought the cross of Christ not an offence but a virtue.” And serm. 50: “Let him see His gaping wounds, let him look at His blood gushing out—he still believes Him to be God whom he knew not to be a criminal, he confesses Him to be righteous whom he knew not as a sinner.” And shortly after, “He understood that for the sins of others Christ bore these wounds. He knew that those wounds on the body of Christ were not the wounds of Christ, but of the thief, and he therefore began to love Him more when, on the Body of Christ, he had recognised his own wounds.” Again, “Great and wonderful, indeed, is that faith which believed that Christ crucified was glorified rather than punished. For in this was the form of his whole salvation. He then recognised the Lord of Majesty, when he saw Him crucified with the patience of humility. He went before in devotion, who went before also in reward. For the thief came into paradise before the Apostles.”

Eusebius of Emissa (or whoever was the author, for the style shows that he was a Latin, not a Greek or Syrian like Eusebius) in his Homily “De Latrone beato:” “How singular and how stupendous that devotion. The criminal believed at the very moment when the elect denied. It was more praiseworthy and more admirable in the thief to believe in the Lord when in bonds, and falling under the last punishments, than if he had done so when He was doing mighty works. Not therefore without reason did he merit such a reward.” He adds the cause. “The heart of the thief, I think, who was now a believer in Christ, was illuminated more properly by the Godhead in a bodily form, which had infused Itself more widely at that moment of the consummation of the redemption.” And again, “He did not say, ‘If Thou art God deliver me from this present suffering,’ but his ‘because Thou art God deliver me from the judgment to come,’ shows to the world its judge and the, King of ages. Although punishment began in the thief, it was perfected in a new manner in the martyr.”

This penitent thief, again, is termed by S. Athanasius an evangelist. “0 Thou excellent one! Thou wast crucified as a thief, thou comest forth suddenly as an evangelist.” He is called by S. Chrysostom in his Sermon on Parasc., “a prophet,” that is a preacher and enunciator of the greatness of Christ. “0 the might of Jesus!” he gays, “the thief is now a prophet and preaches from the cross!” He calls him “a robber and seizer of paradise.” “Thou sawest,” He says, “how he did not forget his former craft, even on the cross, but, by his confession, stole the kindom.” So Sedulius (Carm. v. on Pasch):

  • M.

    Mr. Kelly, thank you for this scholarly post. This is a keeper, so much information here. God bless.