Above: Statue of St. Dismas
Image in the Public Domain
One of the criminals hanging there taunted him:
Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself, and us.
But the other rebuked him:
Have you no fear of God? You are under the sentence as he is. In our case it is plain justice; we are paying the price for our misdeeds. But this man has done nothing wrong.
And he said,
Jesus, remember me when you come to your throne.
Truly I tell you: today you will be with me in Paradise.
–Luke 23:39-43, The Revised English Bible (1989)
There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.
–William Cowper (1731-1800), circa 1771
March 25 is the Feast of the Annunciation. On the Roman Catholic calendar of saints that date is also the Feast of St. Dismas.
All four of the canonical Gospels mention the two bandits (a better translation than “thieves”) crucified with Jesus. John 19:18 reads:
…there they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus in between.
—The Revised English Bible (1989)
The account in the Fourth Gospel does not mention them saying anything. Mark 15:32 and Matthew 27:44 use nearly identical wording; even the other two men crucified with Jesus “taunted” him, to quote The Revised English Bible (1989). Luke 23:39-43, however, has one of the men rebuke the other and receive salvation from Jesus.
Why does the Gospel of Luke tell the story this way? I respect the integrity of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark to try to make them say something they do not. As for the Gospel of John, I conclude that the author might have simply omitted yet another detail so that he could focus on what he considered most important. In the Gospel of Luke, however, two (at least) major aspects of the work help to explain why the text tells the story the way it does. Doing so emphasizes the innocence of Jesus and therefore the injustice of his crucifixion. After all, that is a theme in that Gospel. It is also a theme in the Gospel of John, which makes it clear in 11:47-53. Another major theme in the Gospel of Luke is reversal of fortune; there are Beatitudes and Woes, the first will be last and the last will be first, et cetera. The case of the penitent bandit finding salvation fits nicely into that theme.
The story of the two crucified bandits has fascinated figures in Christianity since the early decades of the faith. Tradition has provided them with various names; Dismas and Gestus seem to have had much staying power. Thus the name on this post is Dismas.
I will not pretend to have concluded that the Lukan account is historically accurate and that the story in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew is not; biblical inerrancy and infallibility are not part of my theology anyway. I am comfortable living with texts that occupy space in the Bible and contradict each other. I am, however, certain of one conclusion regarding Luke 23:39-43: we can learn a valuable spiritual lesson from it. Many (or most) or us (including me) are too quick (at least some of the time) to write certain people off as being beyond redemption. We ought to admit that God knows better than we do. We should acknowledge that such matters are in the purview of God, in whom both mercy and judgment exist, and whose mercy frequently exceeds ours.
God of grace, we thank you for saving live that beckons us pursues us all the days of our lives.
May we welcome it with joy and live, redeemed by grace, as children of the light.
May we rejoice with others who have accepted your grace and
hold out hope for the seemingly irredeemable to come to you.
In the Name of God: the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
2 Corinthians 5:11-6:2
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
JANUARY 26, 2017 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF SAINTS TIMOTHY, TITUS, AND SILAS, COWORKERS OF SAINT PAUL THE APOSTLE