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St. Dismas: A penitent thief and the paradise of belief

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

There is power in words, and especially so in the words of Christ. While hanging on the cross, Jesus speaks these words to the penitent thief, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke. The Church’s tradition holds the “good” thief to be St. Dismas. This is one of the most powerful moments in all of the Gospels, and is, at its core, a shocking and even scandalous display of Christ’s love; shocking because it is not something you’d expect to be told to a criminal who has been condemned to death, and scandalous because in a way, it appears to contradict Jesus’ own teachings.

You see, St. Dismas, by all assumptions, was not always a man of faith, and he was certainly not someone who had been striving to live a sinless life. The situation he finds himself in on the day of Christ’s death proves this: he was a criminal, and for his crimes, he had been sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate alongside Jesus and another thief. As the Gospels say, “One of the criminals who was hanged railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ (Lk 32:39). However, Dismas rebuked the other thief, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Lk 23:40-41).

Then, in perhaps the most vulnerable moment of his life, Dismas utters words that not only reveal his heart, but transform it entirely: “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power” (Lk 23:43). Jesus responds, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43). It’s interesting that Dismas, having come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, expressed this through his words and not just in his heart. Would Jesus have saved him had he not said anything? We can’t know for sure, but it can be assumed that Jesus knew Dismas would be on the cross next to him at the time of his death.

Of course, Dismas also wasn’t baptized, so how could be be saved without undergoing this most fundamental tenet of the Christian faith? In this way, Jesus breaks his own rule, so to speak, but he is Jesus. How often have Christians throughout the ages argued about the means by which a person can be saved? Jesus is very clear about salvation, and of course, he gave authority to the Church to be the keeper of the means to achieve it, but perhaps that’s why Dismas is so important, and why God deemed it necessary for him to be mentioned in the Gospels. With a truly penitent heart and a sincere belief in Jesus Christ as the savior of the world, paradise can be anybody’s; heaven itself is a paradise of belief, as it were.

In a very tangible way, St. Dismas illustrates the perfect power of faith. What Jesus asks of humanity is both extremely simple and profoundly difficult: to love him and to take up our crosses and follow him. Dismas, in his dying gasps, did just this, and the Lord granted him access to paradise. Yes, faith without works is dead, but in the case of St. Dismas, his faith was a work in and of itself. Following his example, then, may the faith of each of us be the work that gets us to heaven, and may our faith be spoken in a way that transforms our very hearts, just as it did St. Dismas.

Aaron Lambert
Aaron is the Managing Editor for the Denver Catholic.
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