The cross stands like a set of scales silhouetted against the Jerusalem sky. Its upraised stanchion balances a crossbeam where love and justice meet, where all humanity has been weighed—and found wanting.
There Jesus hangs with outstretched arms, aching for a prodigal world’s embrace.
On either side hand two thieves, teetering between life and death, between heaven and hell. Teetering until one, at last, reaches out in faith, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
It is the last kind word said to Jesus before he dies, spoken not by a religious leader, not by the disciple whom he loved, nor even by his mother standing at his feet, but by a common thief.
And with the words, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” that thief is lifted off those weighted scales and into the waiting arms of the Savior.
We know nothing about that criminal on the cross next to Christ. We don’t know who much he stole or how often. From whom or why. We know only that he was a thief—a wayward son over whom some mother’s heart has been broken; over whom some father’s hopes have been dashed.
But we know one other thing.
From Matthew’s account, we know that he joined with the crowd in mocking Jesus:
“He saved others, but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.'” In the same way the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.
“In the same way the robbers”—plural. They both joined in the sneering and taunting.
Question: What happens to change that one thief’s heart—to give him the heroism to stand up for Jesus and the humility to submit to him?
Answer: He hears at arm’s distance what Peter hears from afar and would write about years later: “When they hurled insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”
In the midst of the spears of abuse thrust into Jesus’ side, this thief hears him appeal to a court higher than Caesar’s. The appeal is not for justice but for mercy. And not mercy for himself but for his accusers. The spears are sharp and relentless, but Jesus does not throw them back. He bears them in his heart.
The one outlaw hears all this and lifts his faint head to look at the man from whose lips these tender words came. And when his eyes meet the Savior’s, for a moment all time stands still. In those eyes he sees no hatred, no scorn, no judgment. He sees only one thing—forgiveness.
Then he knows. He is face to face with a dying God.
That thief didn’t know much theology. He only knew three things: that Jesus was a king, that his kingdom was not of this world, and that this king had the power to bring even the most unworthy into his kingdom.
But that was enough.
And, in an intimate moment with the Savior, a lifetime of moral debt is cancelled.
Incredible, when you think about it. Amidst the humiliating abuse of the crowd and the excruciating pain of the cross, Jesus was still about his Father’s business. Even with his eyes sinking on the feverish horizon of death, he was telling a common thief about the uncommon riches of heaven.
Help me to look at you through the eyes of that thief on the cross. And grant me the grace, I pray, to see in your eyes the forgiveness that he saw.
For I, too, have stolen much. When I have gossiped, I have taken from another’s reputation, and in the process, robbed from my own. When I have raised my voice in anger, I have taken something away from peace. When I have aided and abetted immoral thoughts, I have stolen from another’s dignity, depreciating that person from a sacred object of your love to a common object of my own lust. When I have hurt someone’s feelings, I have taken something from that person’s self-worth—something which might never be replaced, something for which I might never be able to make restitution. When I have spoken the truth, but not in love, I have stolen from your kingdom by pushing a soul, not closer, but farther away from the borders of paradise.
Remember me, O King, a common thief.
I stand before you naked in the shame of a squandered life—and I ask you to clothe me. I stand before you with a gnawing hunger in my soul—and I ask you to feed me. I stand before you thirsting for forgiveness—and I ask you to touch a drop of your tender mercies to my parched lips.
Grant me the grace to live such a life that when you do remember me in your kingdom, O Lord, you may remember me with a smile, and look forward to the day when I, too, will be with you in paradise. . .
Ken Gire in Moments with the Savior