Jesus said, “Not everyone who says Lord, Lord will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father” (Mt 7:21); yet the Good Thief, whom tradition has named “Dismas,” says “Lord,” and Jesus promises him paradise that very day. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) Besides acknowledging Jesus as Lord, in the short time that he encountered Jesus and died with him on Mount Calvary, how else did Dismas do the will of the Father?
Dismas was with Jesus for a few hours—perhaps beginning with Jesus’s arrest, questioning, torture, and Way of the Cross, and crucified with Him—and in that short time Dismas must have “done the will of the Father.”
Luke is the only evangelist who recounts the interchange between Jesus and Dismas, perhaps owing to the fact, as some tradition holds, that one source for Luke was Jesus’s mother, the Virgin Mary, who was present and would have heard Dismas and Jesus. Luke tells us (Lk 23:32-43):
Now they brought out two others, criminal malefactors, to be crucified with him.
Upon reaching the place called “Skull”, they crucified Him and the two criminals, one on his right, the other on his left.
Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ The soldiers then cast lots for His clothing.
People remained there watching. And the leaders, scoffed at him saying, ‘Others He saved; if He is the Christ of God, the Messiah, let him save Himself.’
The soldiers continued to mock him and, coming up to him, offered Him vinegar,
Saying, “Save yourself, if you are the king of the Jews.’
Above him was this writing: ‘This is the King of the Jews’.
One of the criminals, also crucified there, jeered at Him: ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and save the two of us also.’
But the other criminal spoke up and rebuking him said. ‘Have you no fear of God at all?’ he said. ‘You and He have the same sentence, but both of us deserved it; we are paying for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.’
Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
Jesus replied to him, “Amen, truly I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise.
The exchange between Dismas and the other criminal (who has come to be known as “Gestas”) and the ensuing conversation between Dismas and Jesus has a place of prominence in Luke’s passion narrative. Other than those who are ridiculing Jesus and abusing him, Luke’s gospel (and also the other three gospels) reports the speech of no other person at the foot of the cross, not Mary His mother, not the other Marys, not the apostle John—we hear only the words of Dismas. And after the reply to Dismas’s request, Jesus commended His spirit to the Father and died. John’s gospel recounts that Jesus said “It is finished” before He expired. Why did God inspire Luke to tell us about Dismas? Why was what Dismas said, from the point of view of what is to be in the gospels for all future generations, more important than anything else said by anyone at the foot of the cross?
Of equal interest is what God the Father did not do as Jesus was suffering and dying. This Father made His presence known at the baptism of Jesus when He said, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” At the transfiguration as Jesus, His only-begotten Son, presented in glory to some of the apostles, The Father again spoke saying, “This is my beloved Son, hear Him.” This is the Father God-almighty, all-powerful, all-loving watching His Son dying in agony. He could have spoken again and by His word alone end all this. He could have said to His Son, “Enough, one godly tear coursing down your cheek, one drop of divine blood shed and flowing down on the earth is sufficient to pay for all the sins of all men of all time.” But nothing like this happened. The heavens did not part. Power did not issue forth from the clouds. Lightning bolts did not incinerate all of Jesus’s detractors and oppressors. What did happen is the Father infused Dismas with hope and faith and gave Dismas to His Son.
It was no accident that Dismas (and Gestas) were “taken out with Jesus.” Dismas experienced, even in a few short hours, the divine love and mercy which Jesus shows to everyone. Dismas was there on the Way of the Cross to see Jesus’s kindness to those who tortured and tormented Him. Dismas saw His gift to Veronica and he saw Jesus, in agony, comforting the weeping women of Jerusalem. He heard Jesus seek forgiveness for those shouting for His crucifixion, for the leaders and priests urging them on, and for those stripping Him and nailing Him to the cross. It took only these few hours in the presence of Jesus to change Dismas’s heart.
In hope and faith what did Dismas do besides say “Lord”? In response to the mockery of the leaders, the taunts of the soldiers, and the ridicule of the other criminal who was being crucified, Luke tells us Dismas “spoke up.” Now consider what was going on. Dismas was nailed to a cross, bleeding profusely, dying in agony, as was Jesus. Dismas knew he would die. But he spoke, probably between labored breaths as he pushed down on the nails in his feet to raise his body up so his lungs can take in air, and he spoke, out loud, loud enough for those standing around to hear. He had nothing left to lose. What else could they have done to him to silence him? But instead of cursing Gestas and the soldiers, and condemning the leaders of the people, he called out and defended Jesus publicly, saying Jesus has done nothing wrong. Scripture tells us that the only other person to deny Jesus’s guilt before He dies was Pontius Pilate himself who declared Jesus not guilty three times, in stark contrast to Peter’s three denials.
In faith and hope, Dismas did not say, “If you are God,” or “Hey, speaking purely hypothetically if you’ve got all this power.” No, Dismas declaratively asserted “Lord.” In saying this Dismas acknowledged that Jesus does indeed have a kingdom, and he was saying to all those present that this is the Lord, “Lord” in terms of the Lord God, king not only of the Jews, but of the whole universe. Dismas implicitly admited that Jesus’s kingdom is in heaven when he spoke in terms of Jesus entering His kingdom, because Dismas knew, better than anyone else, that Jesus and he were going to soon die. And as a subject of this Lord, Dismas did not beg for relief from pain, or to be set free, he asked simply that Jesus remember him. Jesus heard Dismas, the protoevangelist of the passion, the first proclaimer of the personal reality of salvation saying: “You are Lord; I have seen them torture you and crucify you, and I have felt all the pain you have felt; and I know, despite the dust and the dirt and the spit and the blood, You are, as Pilate has written, a King; You will come into your kingdom; I know this. I believe it. I have faith in You. Look, I am hanging here with you and I beg you: Lord!”
What the Father gave Jesus was a prodigal son, a repentant criminal, a living/dying embodiment of the “why” of redemption, a real-time, right-there-on-the-cross, before-Your-very-eyes example of a lost sheep who heards His voice. It is as if the Father said: “My beloved Son, in Your agony and suffering, You are shepherding the sheep I have given You. Look, Dismas has been changed by Your love, You have sanctified him, and You will redeem him. You told me that You would not lose them, You have not lost Dismas, and now all of Your sheep will have the chance to follow Dismas into paradise.”
Jesus remembered His words to the Father, some of them spoken so recently at the Last Supper, and the promises about each and every one of His sheep:
“Amen, Amen to you I say, all those who hear my words and believe in the one who sent Me will have eternal life and will not come to destruction.” (Jn 6:24)
Jesus said to them: “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will not hunger and he who believes in me will not thrist. . .Everyone that the Father gives me will come to me and I will turn away no one who comes to me. . .For this is the will of My Father, that all who see the Son and believe in the Son will have eternal life. . .” (Jn 6:35-40)
“Father, these are your gift to me. I hope that where I am, they may be with me.” (Jn 17:24)
“I am the sheep gate and whoever enters through Me will be saved . . .I am the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep. . .My sheep hear My voice, I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they will not perish. . .” (Jn 11:7, 11, 14, 27, 28)
In Dismas, Jesus saw all His sheep. In redeeming Dismas, He saw that redemption is complete, His earthly task is done, and that Dismas and all the sheep who come to Him will be saved, that, “It is finished.”
Now today it is for you to do what Dismas did, not just say “Lord, Lord,” or simply to mouth the words, “I accept you, Jesus, as my Savior;” but to do the will of the Father. It is for you to make it real when you say, “Not my will, but Thine be done.” As Dismas did, you can acknowledge your wrongdoings and come to Jesus and ask Him to remember you—as He said He would do: “”Whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” (Jn 6:37) You now must “speak up” as Dismas did, publicly, in the face of those who will mock you, ridicule your faith, insult you, and hate you for what you believe. And Jesus will say to the Father that this one is with Me, because He told us: “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven.” (Mt 10:32). Dismas was the first to do this and the Church’s first canonized saint. Finally, in doing the will of the Father, you are asked to die with Jesus.
And when you do these things, Jesus will smile at you, embrace you, and say, “Truly, you will be with Me in paradise.”
Guy McClung lives with his wife of 41+ years in San Antonio TX where he practices patent law, helping inventors develop and patent their inventions. Guy has a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Law from Rice University and a J.D. from the University of Texas Law School. Following two stints in the seminary with the missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, total 6 years, he came to the realization that God was not calling him to that type of vowed obedience; so he left the seminary and got married. Five children and seven grandchildren later, he decided to try to write some words that would convey his thanks to God almighty for blessing after blessing after blessing.