In today's Gospel, Luke 22:14 – 23:56, we hear the story of the two thieves who were crucified one on either side of Jesus. Let's take a closer look at their role in the Passion narrative.
Who were these two men?
Luke describes them with the Greek word kakourgos, which means evil-doer or malefactor. Matthew calls them by the Greek word lēstēs, robbers or brigands. We don't know what these two fellows did to to get themselves crucified, but whatever it was, murder, revolt, serious thievery, it couldn't have been good. Unlike Jesus, they were guilty of whatever crime they had committed. One of them even admits it: “...we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes...”
What did these two criminals know about Jesus?
They might have heard something about His preaching and His miracles, for nearly everyone in Jerusalem did. They certainly knew He had been sentenced to death because of His claim of kingship. They may have known how the crowd roared against Him, demanding the release of Barabbas, who might even have been one of the thieves' comrades in crime. They may have known something about the abuse He had received from the Jews and the Romans, for they had probably received a good bit of that themselves. They probably walked the way of the cross with Jesus, so they would have seen how He responded to the taunts of the crowds, how He maintained His silence. They likely saw Jesus interact lovingly with His mother, with Veronica, with Simon of Cyrene, and with the women of Jerusalem. They saw the wounds on Jesus' body, the crown of thorns on His head, and the nails driven into His hands and feet. They heard Him say, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” They had observed enough to know that Jesus was different.
How did the first thief respond to Jesus?
The first thief followed the crowd. He heard the people and the soldiers jeering at Jesus, and he went right along with them. The text says that he “reviled” Jesus. In the Greek, this verb is blasphēmeō. He blasphemes Jesus, vilifies Him, speaks evil of Him, defames Him, even rails at Him. We can almost hear him screaming, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” This man cares nothing for Jesus and His claims. He is wrapped up in himself, thinking about his own survival, perhaps even trying to get in good with the crowd. He never realizes that Jesus could be the answer to all his problems.
How does the other thief respond to Jesus?
This man's response is totally different than that of his fellow criminal. In fact, he rebukes the other thief: “Have you no fear of God,” he asks, “for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this Man has done nothing criminal.” This second thief has seen enough of Jesus to know that He is innocent. A guilty man would not have acted with so much love and compassion. Something in Jesus assures him of that. His heart has opened up to allow in the grace that Jesus is radiating, even during His immense suffering. The thief understands that there is much more to Jesus than he can see. Deep in his heart, he realizes that Jesus is indeed a king, but not in the earthly sense of the word. He turns toward Jesus and begs, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”
The Good Thief's Reward
Picture the love in Jesus' eyes as He turns toward the criminal who has just expressed his deep and hopeful faith. “Amen, I say to you,” He replies, “today you will be with Me in Paradise.” Paradise. With Jesus. This is certainly more than the thief could ever have hoped for. A place in the Kingdom of Christ. He probably doesn't understand what it means yet, but he knows it is true. He knows he is forgiven. He knows he has found mercy. He can die in peace. The thief hears Jesus cry, “Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit.” He sees Jesus breathe His last. He notices the darkness come over the whole land. He may even hear the centurion proclaim, “This man was innocent beyond doubt.” As the soldiers come toward him to break his legs and end his painful suffering, he perhaps utters one final prayer. Then his spirit goes off to accept the offer that Jesus has held out to him. He goes to join Jesus in Paradise.