On each side of Our Lord hung a thief on a cross. "Now one of those robbers who were hanged was abusing him, saying: 'If thou art the Christ, save thyself and us!' But the other in answer rebuked the first and said, 'Dost not even thou fear God, seeing that thou art under the same sentence? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what our deeds deserved; but this man has done nothing wrong.' And he said to Jesus, 'Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom'." (Luke 23 : 39-42).
Why did the other robber blaspheme? Perhaps as some sort of despairing gesture of defiance against his terrible fate. Or perhaps because he had lost hope of Our Lord's being able to save Himself and them—he repeated: "If thou art the Christ [the Messiah], save thyself and us." Most probably, however, because darkness reigned in his soul. For there, before his eyes, were examples of Divine and human holiness; he heard the voice of Our Lord, praying for His enemies; he saw in Him an unparalleled patience; beneath the cross stood the Mother of Mercy, interceding for him. But the wicked man resisted the action of grace, and died blaspheming the Saviour, who was so soon to become his Judge.
Could anything be more tragic and terrible to the Merciful Saviour? The Shepherd looked on at the loss of His sheep, casting itself by its own choice into the jaws of hell! The grace of mercy encountered the impenetrable obstacle of final obduracy. Mary's tender gaze found no response in the icy heart of the prisoner writhing with pain. No tongue can describe the grief that this caused to Our Lord and His Mother.
While this thief was blaspheming, the other began to reflect on himself, and repent. First he sharply rebuked the bad thief for his blasphemy and impious attitude to the Saviour, pointing out that the punishment that both thieves were undergoing was no more than their just deserts, and reminding him of the future punishment that God would inflict on them, and which would be even more severe, if they did not now repent. So he said: "Dost not even thou fear God?"—in other words: You are already suffering so much now—are you not afraid, with such sins on your conscience, to face the judgment? The good thief had begun to fear God, and this was the beginning of his repentance, which he proclaimed by publicly admitting his guilt and his readiness to accept his punishment: "We are receiving what our deeds deserved."
He then went on to declare Our Lord’s innocence: "This man has done nothing wrong"; in saying this, he condemned the Jews, annulled their verdict, and exposed the injustice of Pilate and of the death sentence which, in defiance of his own conscience, he had pronounced on Our Lord. The good thief came out as the first Christian apologist, and did so publicly, in front of the members of the Sanhedrin and the centurion who was Pilate's representative. His behaviour thus calls for special notice as an act of heroism. What was it that set this great sinner on the road to salvation? The infinite Mercy of God, with which he co-operated. Probably the repentant thief had heard of Our Lord and knew of His goodness and miracles, and of the Kingdom of God which He had preached. And so, before he died, he snatched at this one hope that was still left to him, and turned to Him who was crucified unjustly. "'Lord, remember me when thou cometh into thy kingdom".
Yet without the grace of God he could not have done this. Ever since he first saw Christ on the Way of the Cross he had watched Him closely, never taking his eyes off Him while He was being nailed to the cross and while the cross was being raised into position; and he had heard Him praying for His executioners. All he observed, added to his own acute sympathy with his companion in suffering in the torture He was enduring, brought about the first stirrings of grace; and the work was completed by Our Lord's looking at him. The Saviour turned His thorn-crowned head towards him, and, at His look, a change took place in the thief's soul; his heart was shaken to its depths from which there welled up sorrow for sin and a love that suffered for and with Our Lord.
Into his darkened soul there shot a ray of trust in God's Mercy, and this, as in the case of St. Peter, completed the work of grace. Then, too, a great part had been played by Our Lady, who stood beneath her Son's cross on the side where Dismas was hanging. The title and dignity of the Mother of Mercy had just been conferred on her, and—as the Fathers tell us—she seized the first opportunity that presented itself, and offered to God her tears and grief for the salvation of this soul. The dying Son could not refuse His beloved Mother's plea; as once at Cana, He did not let her use in vain that function of Intercessor which had been entrusted to her. He at once gave the dying thief the grace of deep contrition, which led him to accuse himself publicly of his sins, and to come out in heroic defense of the Saviour against the blasphemies of the crowd—and, what is more, with a proclamation of Our Lord's Divinity. What a sublime confession of faith that was!
The disciples had fled, and a thief defended Him valiantly. Peter denied Him, and this robber firmly believed in, trusted, loved and acknowledged Him. How close Dismas had come to eternal condemnation! A murderer and thief, he had behind him a lifetime of sin and crime. And now suddenly a ray of grace had shone into his soul, and from a thief be became a penitent. He had never seen the Saviour's miracles, he had never heard His teaching, yet in the companion of his sufferings he recognized the Messias and King. The grace of God's Mercy had so enlightened him that he acclaimed the condemned man hanging beside him as the Ruler of the Kingdom of God, and cried out: "Lord, remember me when thou cometh into thy kingdom". With his deep sense of his own unworthiness, he did not dare to ask Our Lord to receive him at once into His kingdom. He asked only that He should, at some future time, remember him. He was ready to satisfy the strictest demands of God's justice, as long as the Divine Saviour did not forget him.
The conversion of the thief was more marvellous than the conversion of Mary Magdalene, or even of the Apostle Paul. Magdalene had seen Our Lord's miracles and heard His teaching. Paul had heard a voice from heaven. But the thief had only witnessed the Saviour's Passion. Here, indeed, we see the heroism of his virtue, and the marvellous work of God's Mercy. The thief had nothing—he had no merits; he could, therefore, give nothing of his own. All he had was a little good will that led him to sympathize with Thee, O Jesus!—to follow the call of grace and co-operate with it; and Thou didst pour down on him such Mercy! "Show me, O Lord, Thy Mercy", that I may earnestly meditate on Thy Passion, which worked such a change in the soul of the thief; that I may fly to the intercession of the Mother of Mercy, who, even without being asked to do so, won conversion for the thief and accepted him as her own child.