The Good Thief: Embracing the Undeserved Desire for Everything

Feast Day for St. Dismas: March 25

The parable of the workers in the vineyard used to annoy me. The owner hires some people for the full day and then keeps rounding up others to join them throughout the day with a vague promise to pay them fairly. Then he pays the folks who only worked one hour first and gives them a full day’s wages. He’s doing this in front of everyone so surely he must have known that he is raising the hopes of the people who put in the full day’s work; but they get no more than the people who worked an hour in the cool of the evening. Moreover, he scolds those who sweated all day for complaining: “‘Take your money and go… Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Mt 20:13-16).

It’s not fair. A kindergartener could tell you it’s not fair, and probably would—quite vigorously.

In Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis’ reimagining of the myth of Psyche and Cupid, the heroine meets her old philosopher teacher in the realm of the dead. She is surprised to hear him disown some of his earlier ideas and interjects—but surely, in the end, the gods are just! No, she is told. Thank Heavens, no.

God is better than merely fair and better than merely just. That is the greatest revelation of St. Dismas, one of those figurative workers who joined at the eleventh hour. His feast day falls on March 25—the date on which Christ died according to Western tradition—because that is when Dismas died with Jesus on the neighboring cross. Dismas, the “good thief,” is the saint of God’s glorious unfairness that shines at the heart of the mystery of Easter salvation.

Dismas: A Brief Life

Few saints have a shorter story than Dismas (a name given him by tradition). The Gospels tell us that two thieves were crucified next to Jesus. Only one—Luke—records the words gasped out from these tortured men. The first thief demands Jesus, if he is the Messiah, bring them all down from the cross. The second thief, however, rebukes the first. He says,

“Have you no fear of God, 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.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

(Luke 23:40-43)

That’s all we know of Dismas. Ancient Christians filled in the details by creating a story of Dismas leading a band of robbers in Egypt. They fall upon the Holy Family who are fleeing Herod after Jesus’ birth. Something about the family touches Dismas and he orders them spared. Once again his heart is softened on the cross as he sees Jesus again. Perhaps it happened that way.

Some modern Biblical commentators have suggested that Dismas was a revolutionary against Rome since the Romans mainly used crucifixion as a method for executing political rebels or slaves. Perhaps he was one of those. We don’t know.

S. Dimas, le bon larron (St. Dismas, The Good Thief), March 25th, from Les Images De Tous Les Saincts et Saintes de L’Année. Jacques Callot, 1636. Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access.

That, I think, is the simple point of Dismas. Whatever his past life, all of that is washed away by the blood flowing from the nail wounds in Jesus’ hands, the blood from Jesus’ back ripped open from the scourging, the blood from the thorns piercing his scalp. In this elemental moment of ultimate human suffering and ultimate divine love, none of those worries or triumphs that preoccupied Dismas’ life before mattered except insofar as they prepared the naked, suffering man to turn to Jesus. It didn’t matter that it was the last hour of Dismas’ life; in that single moment he turned to God. And Jesus rose through his own suffering to croak out the words that Dismas had longed for his whole life without knowing it: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

The Merciful Unfairness of God

There’s a St. Dismas House near the University of Notre Dame. It’s a halfway house for ex-prisoners released on parole and trying to start a new life. I know about it because Notre Dame students (including myself back in the day) sometimes volunteer to cook a meal there for the residents. I don’t know that it is a service that is particularly necessary since the residents generally do their own chores, but I think it is important for breaking down barriers—the fear of “criminals” on one side, the fear of being rejected on the other.

It’s an important ministry simply because it helps us know that we all rely on divine unfairness. I try to do more good in this world than harm and I think that is pleasing to our Lord. Yet I know though that if God repaid me justly for what I have done, it will never be enough for me. Even if I did enough good to avoid punishment, what I truly want is complete peace, complete belonging, complete love that will never end. Nothing I can do in this short lifespan could earn that. I need God to give me more than I deserve.

There were two thieves next to Jesus. The first asked to escape the cross and preserve his life. He didn’t ask for enough; Jesus ignored him. Dismas, instead of seeking to escape his cross, asked God for something outrageous. Jesus gave him eternity.

O Jesus, you came to give us something more valuable than the entire world. Never let me settle for less than the gift which you bought for us at the inestimable cost of your own suffering and death. Never let me forget that you give freely, generously, and so far beyond mere justice and fairness. Let me never be afraid to turn to you, no matter how little I deserve it, and to ask you to forgive me. Let me live with you in Paradise forever. Amen.

St. Dismas, pray for my conversion and the conversion of all sinners even at the hour of our deaths.