[Beliefnet, April 19, 2006]
The Gospels don’t tell us much about the two thieves crucified with Jesus. Tradition calls the “Good Thief” Dimas or Dismas, while the “Bad Thief” is named Gestas. Dimas’ legend reveals a little more. As a young man he was the leader of a robber band in Egypt, and encountered the Holy Family during their sojourn after Jesus’ birth. He discerned something special about the Jewish family, we’re told, and ordered his men to spare them. Thirty years later he saw that child once again, nailed to a cross beside him.
During those hours of agony on Friday afternoon, Luke’s Gospel reveals that Gestas berated Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But Dimas rebuked his fellow robber: “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.”
Dimas then went on, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The Lord replied, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
From this point on our attention is fixed on the Cross of Christ. We see the sky darken, hear Jesus cry “Eloi, lama sabachthani!,” see him offered a drink of vinegar, and then, with “a loud cry,” breathe his last.
Dimas must have seen these things too, and in the midst of his blazing agony wondered what it all meant. No doubt the Lord’s words had surprised him. Dimas was expecting that Jesus would somehow show his kingly power. If something was going to happen “today,” it would have to happen fast. No doubt he turned his head, whenever he could bear the pain, to gaze at the strange dying man beside him.
Today we call crucifixion “barbaric,” but the method was carefully thought through by very civilized Romans. They needed a form of execution that would deal memorably with those who posed a threat to the state (like the rebel bands which plagued the land, robbing and killing villagers who resisted their cause). Crucifixion literally holds the criminal up as an example. The lesson continues when the body is left hanging after death, and it becomes a feast for pecking birds and gnawing beasts. This shameful decay deprives the family of the comfort of a gravesite, and rebels of a rallying point.
But best of all, death by crucifixion was not swift. If the Romans found it useful to hurry things along, a quick cracking blow across the legs with a stout length of wood was sufficient.
Imagine what thoughts went through Dimas’ mind as he saw his companion weaken and then actually die. Was it minutes or hours that he continued to survive there, his consciousness wavering in a fog of pain? A glance would show the body of Jesus sagging wretchedly, glazing over with blue, and no longer even twitching to throw off the feasting flies. “Today you will be with me,” Dimas perhaps recalled. Yes, he would think, that is where I am going. It doesn’t look like Paradise.
Perhaps Dimas continued hoping for some miraculous pardon and rescue, even though the weight of the neighboring corpse mocked his hopes. What did he think as he saw the day draw to an empty close, and no angel from heaven stop the soldier who stood before him, swinging back the club that would shatter his legs and end his life?
Through two thousand years uncountable ranks of men and women have died for Christ, the ultimate witness of their faith. But they had this to strengthen them: they lived after the Resurrection, and knew that Christ has conquered Death.
Dimas didn’t know that. He wasn’t even a disciple, and can’t have known much about Jesus beyond hearsay. Yet for some reason he found in the battered figure beside him a spark for crazy hope. There was a strange light about this wretched criminal. It was like he knew something. No, it was that he *was* something. Whatever he was, whatever it all meant, Dimas wanted to be part of it. With a surge of untaught faith, Dimas asked Jesus for something he could hardly have understood: “Remember me.”
It is possible to have faith, even in things we don’t understand. True, we may regularly struggle with doubt when it comes to historical faith-claims that we cannot verify. But faith in Christ is not faith in a fact, it’s faith in a person. His presence inexplicably speaks from heart to heart. It elicits an intense desire to be near him, and an outpouring of love, trust, allegiance, and gratitude. The person who has experienced this presence can continue having faith in the beloved Christ, even when doubts about facts dance and mock. The fact-faith of other believers, the immense Body of Christ that transcends time, helps the individual ride out the storm
But Dimas would not have had that even that help; he had nothing but the memory of words spoken by a man now utterly still. Perhaps no one in Christian history has had his faith tested as searingly. Some saints have spoken of feeling abandoned by God; Dimas experienced that abandonment in the most literal way. Yet the Church holds him to be a saint solely because of his faith. Dimas had not cared for the poor or spent himself in fasting. He had not led a moral life, had not made restitution for his wrongs, and had not conquered heights of prayer. He wasn’t even baptized. But he looked at Jesus and loved him. And that was enough.
Even as we celebrate the Resurrection, where Death is trampled and sorrow is no more, we can still see the other cross, standing next to Christ’s. On that cross Dimas’ faith was exposed to the fiercest battering that doubt can deal. He could represent all those who find themselves inexplicably drawn to Christ, yet sometimes find it hard to believe.
Doubters are sprinkled throughout the Gospels, as if God had hidden them there for our reassurance. St. Thomas said that he would not believe the Resurrection until he’d seen and touched the risen Christ, and Jesus graciously met his need. When the eleven apostles saw the risen Christ on a mountaintop, St. Matthew tells us, even then “some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). And at the bottom of the Orthodox icon of the Nativity, we see Joseph looking worried as he listens to an aged shepherd. This is the Devil, and he is tempting Joseph to doubt the Virgin Birth. In the center of the icon the Virgin Mary Theotokos is not looking down at her baby, but is gazing out toward her spouse with compassion, as if she is holding him up in prayer. There are many in the course of Christian history who have had to pray with the father who begged Jesus to heal his son: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
God himself completes our unbelief. This is the lesson of the cross of Dimas, which bears its own humble witness alongside the Cross of Christ. Even if Dimas’ faith was fragile, it was sufficient, because Christ himself completed it. As the ancient Orthodox hymn of Holy Thursday says, it was the Lord himself who made Dimas worthy of Paradise “in a single moment”:
“The Wise Thief didst Thou make worthy of Paradise, in a single moment, O Lord. By the wood of thy Cross illumine me as well, and save me.”